What is Corporate Culture? It Comes Down to THIS Word

Woman pouring coffee with the text "what is corporate culture?"

What is corporate culture? I help businesses develop a culture that improves their competitive advantage, but for many of them, they have trouble even defining the term when we begin working together.

At a recent in-house company seminar I was conducting, I was asked, “How is it that you are a habits coach and yet most of the work you do in the corporate world is around culture and not habits?”

The answer is easy. To me, the answer to the question "what is corporate culture?" comes down to habits.

What we call habits in our personal lives – those things that we do repeatedly and which we have accepted as normal even when we do not approve of them or when they produce results other than those we desire – are the same as those things that are done repeatedly in the workplace, accepted as normal and frequently invoke disapproval when they produce results other than those desired. That is what determines your organizations culture.

What is Corporate Culture?

My experience working in many different organizations ranging from international private-sector companies, not-for-profit organizations and government agencies has taught me this: culture is that which has come to be viewed as both normal and acceptable.

Cultural norms are frequently unspoken, so they are not subject to accountability.  Many people responsible for repeated inappropriate behaviour do so for one simple reason: because they believe they can.

In the same way that our position, status and personal power enables us to sustain habits that may be detrimental to our well-being, while moving us further and further away from where we want to be in our personal lives, position, status and personal power embolden some employees to repeatedly conduct themselves in a way that is detrimental to others in an organization and to the organization itself. Think about problem employees in your workplace. Does this description fit any of them?

Culture is formed in organizations, just as all habits are formed. It comes either by design, or by default.

What started out as an occasional treat, like eating ice cream in the den while watching TV after dinner, slowly increases in frequency until it becomes part of every evening's routine and, as such, assumes a new moniker, it's now a habit.

Similarly, what began with one person leaving their used and dirty coffee mug on the table in the lunch room, was soon followed by a second person doing the same, and then a third, and soon it became the cultural norm for all to follow. An unclean environment and inconsiderate behaviour becomes a habit. It's now part of your culture.

Do Old Habits Really Die Hard?

The deep-rooted adage that “old habits die hard” is as false in attempting to change habits as it is in trying to introduce a new culture. Old habits don't die hard. They don't die at all. They just require conscious recognition and a real desire for a new outcome.

Culture is no different. Cultures require champions who will model desired behaviours day in, and day out. In the world of hierarchical structure, the more senior the champions, that greater the likelihood of the new culture taking hold and becoming habituated as cultural norms. It has to start at the top. In other words, if the boss doesn't wash her coffee cup, you can bet no one else will.

Like Habits, culture doesn’t change until mindsets change. Habits and culture are driven by what we (singularly or collectively) believe to be true. Which means, until those beliefs change, nothing will change in the long term.

Back to the true answer to that lady’s question, the difference between habits and culture really just has more to do with the size of my audience than with the content of my work. Habits coaching is one-on-one. Changing cultures in organizations means interacting (and coaching) many people to change their habits all at once.

Just as individuals are the product of the things they repeatedly do, organizations are the product of all the things that are done repeatedly.

Habits and culture may not seem like interchangeable words, but, believe me, you can absolutely substitute one for the other when it comes to making meaningful change.

So, when the question is, “Is it about habits or culture?” the correct answer always is yes.

What is corporate culture?

Till we read again.


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