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3 min read

What Is Workplace Culture and How Do We Get It?

What is Workplace Culture?Fist bumps

Culture is the learned behavior, norms, and routines a group of people share. Sometimes it’s more of a feeling or experience than anything else. In the workplace, culture is influenced by three things:
  • Rules
  • Traditions
  • Personalities

Rules are the formal procedures, policies and expectations your company creates. Often these are categorized in employee manuals or other official documents, and they illustrate how the company views itself as a business and an employer. Examples of written rules include your sick leave policy or dress code. You probably have unwritten rules too, like the proper way to answer the phone or the understanding not to discuss client details outside of the office.

Traditions often reflect the way a team works together and builds relationships. They can add to employees’ enjoyment at work and help them get to know each other outside of the work roles. Big and small examples include annual corporate picnics, signing a group card for coworkers’ birthdays, casual Fridays, and volunteer opportunities.

Personalities of employees at every level also contribute to culture. Clearly, the people who work for a company have different attitudes and experiences and these change the overall feel of an organization. Over time as employees come and go, the culture will change too. It’s important to remember to notice if stronger personalities seem to dominate at the expense of others. That can lead to feelings of preferential treatment, mistrust, or even harassment.


How to Identify Your Existing Culture

Culture develops organically, that is, it grows out of the rules, traditions and personalities in the company. But it can also be influenced by:

  • aligning your formal and unwritten rules and policies with company values
  • events and activities where employees interact socially
  • the extent to which employees feel valued
  • accountability for behaviors that impact culture in a negative way
  • behavior modeled by leadership (i.e. communication, listening, language and tone, value of diversity, etc.)

To assess the culture at your workplace you must take an objective, honest look at what’s going on around you at all levels and within all departments. You must note what you see (or do not see) as opposed to what you would like to see.

One way to do this is by making observations and taking notes. How do employees behave during meetings? Do they listen and take turns, or do a few people tend to dominate the conversation? Are new ideas welcomed for discussion or rejected quickly? How clear and regular is communication, in person or by email? Do all of your employees seem engaged? What management styles do you observe and how do they affect employees’ productivity and morale?

Surveys are another way to learn about perceived culture. While it sounds like an easy way to get feedback, there’s more to it than writing out some questions and emailing them to your staff. To obtain honest results and make the most of them, you have to commit time to all phases of a survey, including:

  • developing unbiased, clear questions that don’t lead respondents 
  • providing ample notification and time for employees to complete the survey
  • distributing it in a format that makes it easy to complete (paper or electronic)
  • ensuring confidentiality
  • following up with any questions or concerns raised
  • compiling and analyzing data impartially
  • sharing results with the organization as a whole
  • acting on findings to improve what isn’t working and reinforce what is

Another way is by talking with employees at all levels and stages of employment for their input. Include hourly and salaried employees, new hires, long-term employees, managers, administrative staff, decision makers, team leaders, part-timers, and others. You don’t have to interview every employee, but you do need to ensure that you have a mix of ages, genders, experience, races and ethnicities, and positions. The obvious influencers in your company are great to talk with, but be sure to provide an opportunity for the voices you hear from less often to be heard also. This will give you the fullest picture of the situation.

Remember not everyone perceives culture the same way. What might be light-hearted ribbing to one employee could be awkward or embarrassing to another. Maybe the admin staff is frustrated that others don’t clean up after themselves in the break area, and the task falls to them. Or, you might not have noticed that those at the company longest tend to steamroll over newer voices.
Don’t rush this process – it takes time for a dominant culture to develop and become visible, so take enough time to really understand what’s going on before you try to make changes.

If you'd like to learn more about how to improve the culture of your workplace download our Ebook on "Putting Culture to Work for Your Business".
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