Everyone is talking, arguing, blogging, theorizing, and giving TED talks about the elusive and transformative topic of company culture.
You’ve undoubtedly seen a few “top five” lists of ways to improve it. Maybe you’ve attended a seminar or workshop on the topic. Company culture is likely something you’ve considered in the past year, and perhaps you’re actively working to pump it up.
The recommendations on how to improve culture run the gamut: happy hours, holiday parties, team outings, open-concept work spaces, game rooms, intentional hiring practices, more teamwork, remove leadership, stop scheduling meetings, and much more. Companies are left wondering, “where do we even begin?” Let’s rewind.
Developing a Model of Culture
The idea of company culture isn’t exactly new – it’s actually present the moment a business or organization launches. But it wasn’t until management theorists like John Kotter and Edgar Schein coined the term in the late ‘80s , that the idea became a common talking point.
Katherine Miller’s Organization Communication: Approaches and Processes sums up the Kotter/Schein definition of culture perfectly as an organization’s “values, norms, beliefs, visible and invisible artifacts”. Schein posits that there are three levels of culture: artifacts, espoused values, and basic assumptions.
It sounds dense, but hang with me for a few moments while we match them up with things you’ll recognize.
Artifacts are the tangible and overt elements in an organization. Think: dress code, office space, logo, inside jokes, and awards. For instance, at Proof, some of our artifacts include casual dress, open office space, and our 2014 Nashville Next award.
Espoused values are the company rules and philosophies/values. Usually housed somewhere in the company handbook (e.g. nestled in your mission statement) or posted on the office walls, these values are often public statements. In our organization, we strive to keep it simple, focus on people, and be better than yesterday.
Basic assumptions are the deeply held, unconscious behaviors that are often taken for granted, but are the core of the company culture. These should be inherent in the way your team works, where you work, and how you communicate with stakeholders.
This last one is often the hardest to grasp, but the most essential. Let me give you an example: we wholeheartedly believe in collaboration here at Proof. It’s why our office space is open, it’s why we all keep Slack open throughout the day for communication purposes, and it’s why we focus on people. Our values and artifacts are all an outgrowth of the basic assumptions we hold.
No Checklist, No Quick Fix
Newsflash: company culture is more than your weekly happy hour, it’s more than that kick-ass holiday party you threw last year, and it’s definitely more than your open-concept office space.
It’s about things like your communication patterns, teamwork, your process of idea generation, values, management styles, and more.
So, while all those blog lists have valuable suggestions, and happy hours are great team bonding opportunities — it’s important to remember that any changes you might implement to culture are aligned with your basic assumptions (those deeply held, unconscious behaviors) and core values.
Begin at your core. Revisit your values — are these values held by every team member? Are your structures, communication, management practices, and internal processes demonstrative of these values? These are the elements that each member of your organization makes contact with every day; these are the core elements of your culture. Perfect these first.
If you neglect essential elements of your cultural model, happy hours and holiday parties will simply be a band-aid on the larger issue at hand. First, re-imagine, redesign, and improve company culture in the less glamorous but essential ways.
Then, go grab a beer with your crew.