"Corporate culture" has become such a common HR buzzword that it may elicit some eyerolls from seasoned professionals. After all, it's tough to make tangible changes to a whole company based on such a nebulous concept. But while this idea may have just started to gain more traction in the last decade or so, it's always been an intangible factor in employee satisfaction, and an incredibly important one, at that.
To save you from the avalanche of articles on this topic, we've rounded up a few of the best ones from the past year or so (plus one classic).
Like most of Seth Godin's blog posts, this article is brief but powerful. In it, he compares two kinds of companies; one in which the employees eagerly sit in the front row for a presentation, and one where the employees scatter around the room, avoiding the front row and each other. In just a few paragraphs, he distills why it's crucial for an organization to build, hire for, and nurture a strong culture.
"The first organization sees possibility, the second sees risk and threat. The first group is eager to explore a new future, the second group misses the distant past."
This is one of the more thorough and practical articles on this topic floating around. The authors start by acknowledging the problems with most discussions about organizational culture: they rarely do anything to change the workplace experience, and any changes are short-lived. Their useful advice: "If you cannot simply replace the entire machine, work on realigning some of the more useful cogs."
By focusing on a few concrete principles and tasks— such as "focus on a critical few behaviors," "deploy your authentic informal leaders," and "link behaviors to business objectives," among others— this article avoids falling prey to the touchy-feely elements that dominate most think pieces on corporate culture.
In stark contrast to the article above, this one talks about culture in terms of two kinds of energy in a company: trust and fear. The author, Liz Ryan, talks directly to leaders in organizations and reminds them that their most important job is to manage their people well. The way to do that, she posits, is to take your eyes off the charts and graphs and to look around at whether employees and leaders trust each other or not.
She also notes what she views as the main reason many leaders fail to make positive changes in their company culture: they can't get the view available to outsiders.
"Your culture is the loudest thing happening in your organization. It is booming in your employees' ears. Your vendors know a lot about your culture. Your customers may know more about your culture than you do."
This article takes the unique approach of helping corporate leaders categorize the culture of their business. Instead of favoring one kind over another, the author provides descriptions of each type (team-first, elite, horizontal, conventional, and progressive), along with examples of companies that demonstrate them, and their benefits and potential pitfalls. She notes that in some cases, the industry dictates the type of culture in a company, but also observes that cultures can evolve over time to adapt to the needs of the company.
Drawing straight from recent headlines, this article uses Uber as an example of what not to do when it comes to building a positive corporate culture. The author notes that culture is something company leaders are always creating and changing— for better or for worse, and whether they mean to or not. Citing the allegations of widespread sexual harassment and the leaked video of CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver over cutting prices, this article points out that these uncomfortable revelations were inevitable for a company whose founding philosophy involves skirting rules and regulations.
"Culture flows from the organization’s core values, and if the core values espouse the notion that accepted, long-standing rules don’t apply and that you can do whatever you want, well, you’re going to get a workplace culture where everybody thinks the normal rules don’t apply, too."
Whether you're just getting started in your first HR or leadership position, or you've been in your industry for decades, it's wise to consider the trajectory of your workplace culture from time to time. As many of the authors of these articles point out, culture is almost constantly in flux; spending time planning for how to direct that change in a positive direction can have massive payoffs in productivity and retention in the long run.