I would not want to run into this lion out in the wild all by myself. He appears to have pretty sharp teeth and a large mouth, and I can’t see his paws in this picture, but I’m willing to bet they’re giant and decorated with freshly-sharpened claws. Most non-human animals, such as this lion, have fur or claws to protect themselves from the elements, to help them find food, and to find shelter. As humans, we have only measly little fingernails, and we wouldn’t last long at all outside in our bare skin, either in the sun or in the snow. So how do we protect ourselves from predators like lions, and find the food we need to survive?
That’s what culture does for us. Human culture is the mechanism that enables us to work together to solve problems. Some problems we have faced as humans include how to find and grow food, how to shelter ourselves from the elements, and how to take care of our tiny, helpless offspring who are reliant on us not for months, but for years. It also allows us to work together in other ways, such as in a business.
Culture extends to how we interact with and treat one another. Cultural “norms” are the rules we have defined as necessary to interact with one another. We don’t think about those norms as being anything out of the ordinary, because we are immersed in them every day. For example, I am from an urban and industrial area in the rustbelt near Cleveland. Where I come from the word “dinner” refers to the meal you eat around 6:00 at night. My husband is from a farming community in the Midwest, and in his culture, the word “dinner” refers to the meal you eat at the midday, the meal I would normally call “lunch.” Neither is right nor wrong, there is simply a cultural difference in the way meals are eaten, due to different nutritional needs at different times of the day.
In the workplace, each business or office has its own cultural norms. These are the rules, sometimes written, sometimes unwritten, by which we agree to interact with each other. Since we’ve already been talking about the midday meal, I’ll tell you about one office where I worked in which it was normal to eat lunch at your desk. In fact, it wasn’t just normal, it was unofficially required. Of course, it was illegal not to allow employees a break, and therefore not officially required by the employee handbook or the management. However, I can tell you that if a person did choose to leave the office for lunch, everyone else would make snide comments when they returned, and the person would be punished in passive aggressive ways. Likewise, in a different company where I worked it was normal and encouraged to leave the office each day for an hour at lunch. The thought was that if people left, they would come back refreshed and ready for the afternoon. The culture of those offices were much different, and what was considered normal in one would be considered very unusual and even discouraged in the other. In this case, one of these office environments was abusive and controlling, and the other was open and creative. I bet you can guess which one had higher turnover!
The way you manage your business and the people you choose to hire will create the culture of your business. The culture of the business will in turn affect very important aspects of your growth and profitability, including your ability to hire and retain top talent. Does your culture promote open dialogue between staff and management? Does your culture promote leadership growth? Does your culture support families? Does your culture value the customer? Often if you don’t set out to create these values, you may find yourself with a company whose culture does not actually support the values it claims to have.
In the comments section below, I invite you to share experiences from a company you have worked with who did either a really excellent job of building company culture, or from a company who did a particularly poor job. What could they have done differently?