skip to Main Content
What Is Culture…Really?

What is Culture…Really?

It occurred to me that after doing culture work for nearly 8 years as a consultant, and in some form or fashion in the corporate world before that, culture is still one of those words that makes the eyes glaze over.


Why? Because it seems nebulous. Culture has become one of those words, like “accountability” or “integrity”, that is used so frequently that its true meaning has been somewhat muddled. We all intrinsically understand what these words mean, certainly, we know what it looks like when someone does not act with integrity or is not accountable, but it’s sometimes hard to put the finger on it exactly. Culture is the same in this regard.


So, when we talk about making culture changes it sounds big. It sounds time-consuming and it sounds expensive.  The fact is, that culture is not that complicated. It’s made up of 3 parts; values, behaviors, and systems. Here is a breakdown of each of these areas and what you can do to assess where your company is culturally.



Values are the touchstone of your organization. They are the lens through which every important decision is made. I am not referring to the flowery, over-generalized words that are elegantly painted on the conference room wall, or in the marketing collateral. I’m talking about the true way in which your company conducts business.


For example, a company that I worked for early in my career valued teamwork and technology above all else. These words were nowhere on the website or on the walls. Instead, it was evident in how the company ran. They invested heavily in new technologies and propriety software. Our IT and Development departments were quite large by industry standards. We were always rolling out system updates to help us work more efficiently.


As far as teamwork was concerned, it was widely expected that one could collaborate not only in their respective teams but cross-departmentally as well. It was too difficult to get the work done any other way. It was expected that you would develop relationships in different areas of the company to understand the business more holistically and to be able to problem-solve.


Here are some things to consider when creating or revisiting your values:

  • What does the company truly care about?
  • What are the things that make us unique?
  • What are our standards for conducting business?
  • When establishing values, it’s important to ask for perspectives from across the organization, not just the leadership team.



Values are a good start, but it’s behaviors that support and reinforce those values. Without behaviors, values are meaningless.


For a culture to be healthy, a company must be clear on what those values look like in action. For example, if one of your company values is “do the right thing,” everyone must understand that that looks like behaviorally in their role. For the CEO that may mean making decisions that are fiscally responsible. For the person answering customer service calls, it may mean going above and beyond to resolve a customer’s issue.


It’s important to provide training on what value-based behavior looks like and to recognize and reward it when you see it.


Here are some things to consider when aligning behaviors with values:

  • What do value-supporting behaviors look like at every level of the organization?
  • What training is being offered so that every single employee understands how to support the values? New hire training is a great place to start.
  • What kind of rewards and recognition programs are in place to acknowledge and show appreciation to those who live the values?



For a healthy culture to sustain, the values and behaviors must be backed by systems. Policies, performance management systems, and rewards programs should reflect the company values and value-supporting behaviors.


Imagine that one of your company values is “continuous learning.”  You introduce and train on the values during new hire orientation. You explain that continuous learning means being curious about “why” things operate the way they do within the company so learning the ins and the outs of your department and others is encouraged. It also means professional development is key. You’re encouraged to attend conferences and pursue advanced degrees. However, there is no tuition reimbursement policy in place and the departmental budget for conference attendance is next to nothing. In this case, the systems do not support the values.


The values should be evident throughout the entire organization including:

  • Rewards and recognition programs. If someone is showing they support the company values through their behaviors, it should be recognized as such and rewarded.
  • Performance management systems including competency models, coaching & feedback conversations, etc. The company values and value-supporting behaviors should be specifically identified and measured. Values and behaviors should be tied to performance.
  • Company policies. Do the policies reflect and support your values?


Making positive culture change does not have to be a big scary endeavor. Start by assessing each area; values, behaviors, and systems. Focus on first establishing or revisiting company values and then determine what behaviors support those values. From there, take a look at your systems.  And remember, we’re here to help!


If you’d like more information on how to advance your company culture, contact our experts at Pathfinder Strategies at or by phone at (888) 529-0240.

Back To Top