Corporate culture is not just values and attitudes

“Values and attitudes” don’t equal corporate culture. That they do is the most common misconception regarding corporate culture.

In our experience, executives often confuse culture as “soft stuff” – thus not understanding how to impact it – when it is described using intangible, unmeasurable language and concepts. Sort of like the personality of your kids: Interesting cocktail party talk maybe, but not very actionable or change-able.

Culture is a powerful enabler of business performance when you approach it with a business definition:

  1. Culture defined: “The way we get things done around here that either helps or hinders our strategy.” If your strategy changes, you must examine the commensurate behaviors that must change. Culture is about how aligned people are to the strategy.  If you want to improve organic growth through innovation but efficient delivery is the dominant mindset, you will need to find a way to embed, measure, and reward collaboration and risk-taking (versus more centralized decision making).
  2. Culture is measurable. Values cannot be measured, really. Neither can attitudes. But behavior can. If you want to change your culture, you must clearly define new behaviors.  Measuring culture can be formal or informal, but you have to benchmark where you stand in a way that can be analyzed over time.
  3. Culture can feel good and perform.  This is NOT an either/or equation. Culture is not the “feel-good” quality of the business or a distraction from the “real work” of the business. It is the fuel of everything you’re trying to make happen. Forget to gas up … car stops.
  4. Culture is not an excuse for losing. So often it’s used to explain why we can’t get something done – “That’s just our culture.” If you’ve stopped winning, often people tap culture as the bad guy. It’s easier, like blaming the economy for why nobody turned up to your party. Big turn-off in the boardroom. Guard against this language.
  5. Culture matters, but not all of it.  There are cultural traits that matter more than others. Not everyone is Zappos, Groupon or Facebook – so don’t try to imitate a “coolness” factor that plays more like college initiation if you aren’t that type of company. A universal culture trait that matters: Empowerment. Every human being gives more if their input and presence matters.
  6. Culture change works best when kept small. Evolution works. In nature it’s a series of tiny, almost imperceptible changes, sometimes with a tsunami-like shot of big change. Tackle one small change that matters at a time, in a way that is digestible – such as getting everyone to fully understand the vision and strategy of the company. (by the way, this is proven as the #1 way to impact culture to improve performance).
  7. Culture is not code for “engagement” or “morale” – those are elements of culture, but engagement or morale are broad terms and must be considered in terms of behavior if they’re to be of any use to the business. We find that engagement efforts are often disconnected from the business strategies and goals – they may be good to do, but they’re not about creating a winning business that is both fun to work in AND gets results.

Improved corporate culture leads to competitive advantage

In an age where competitive advantage is harder than ever to achieve, culture might be your next big idea … as long as you can translate it into meaningful change. Start by getting clear what meaningful change means in your business.

And as for values: Where DO they show up in culture?

Consider this: If a leader really really cares about customers, how does he get 10,000 people in his organization to care as much as he does?

Culture is the bridge … but if you want it to stand up to the pressure of a high-speed business world, it had better be built with good engineering.

Lisa Jackson and Gerry Schmidt are corporate culture experts, helping companies improve performance through sensible methods of changing company culture, and aligning their culture with unprecedented change and transformation.

Visit them on the web at or follow them on Twitter at



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