Archive Monthly Archives: July 2016

Workplace culture – what is it and why is it so important?

Is it important? You may think it isn’t, but I want to show you why I think it is important. Before that though, some wider questions need to be addressed. What do we mean by workplace culture? How do we know if we like it, or if we want to change it? How do we go about making changes?

Let’s start with some definitions

At its simplest, culture is often described as ‘the way we do things around here’. Not sure which business or management book I got this from, but I’ve come across it a few times. But then, that’s not really enough to help us answer those other questions – how do we know we’re happy with the current culture, or how do we change it?

This I believe is a more useful definition

Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people. Culture is the behaviour that results when a group arrives at a set of - generally unspoken and unwritten - rules for working together. [1]

This is then influenced by the organization’s founder, executives, and other managerial staff because of their role in decision making and strategic direction. [2]

Or more simply, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, in their book Rework, describe it as the by product of consistent behaviour. The behaviour you want your team to demonstrate, that’s the behaviour you should adopt. [3]

There’s lots of evidence that a strong workplace culture is good for organisations, good for the bottom line, and good for the people who work there. If you need convincing of that, I’ll come back to it another time. But if you want to improve your workplace culture, how do you go about it?

How do I know if it's good or bad?

Any assessment of culture is subjective of course. But there are things an organisation can do to assess its culture.

The first step would be to do an audit of current culture. Whilst culture can be a reflection of the founder or senior management team, as I’ve already observed, it’s a complex issue. Much of it is – as stated above – unspoken and unwritten, and shows up in daily work practices. An audit can bring some of these practices into the daylight. An audit done well, surveying the organisation at all levels, will also highlight differences in what management believe the culture to be, opposed to what is actually going on in teams, what your culture is in reality, and whether there’s any correlation between them.

For example, where the pursuit of organisational goals is the common aim, (and I’d argue that this is the aim for all organisations) individual targets and performance are not the drivers. This is a key point, often overlooked. Many organisations then set sales people against each other, rewarding those who make the most sales, encouraging a competitive atmosphere, which of course is counter productive when you want everyone to work together.

Once you’ve identified your current culture, as an organisation you can begin to think about what you’d like to change.

What does good look like?

This again will depend upon the organisation and its aims. However, poor quality employment is associated with low wellbeing. Job design, involvement in decision making, managerial competence, bullying and harassment, status, all determine quality of work experience. Many employers think gym membership and insurance will contribute to wellbeing. In my view, they are outsourcing the solution, and are probably outsourcing the problem too. They are placing responsibility for wellbeing back with the individual, and take no responsibility for factors mentioned above.[4]

So a good culture then, how do we recognise this? There are clues you can spot. Do you have low rates of staff turnover and sickness absence? Is everyone happy in their work? Do your people look forward to the work week, or dread that Monday morning feeling? How do they speak about your company or organisation? Are you achieving your business aims and objectives?

If it's bad, how do I change it?

Your audit may have identified some gaps between what you would like the culture to be, against what is actually going on. It is important to work out how covert behaviours develop to help to implement change. Unless you identify the behaviour, how and why it developed you can't then work out how to change.

However, this is the really tough one. Defining what culture is might be tricky, assessing it can be complex, but just wait till you decide to change it; we’re on a whole new level of difficulty now. Leaders must be creators and promoters of the preferred culture. Of course, if leaders are the problem with bullying styles of management, they are indeed the creators and promoters of the culture. As with any conflict situation, it behoves us all, leaders included, to ask what are we doing to contribute to or cause the problem?

Barriers to change

Research has shown that organisations which have little or no commitment to equality and diversity, whose cultures encourage dominant groups to hold power, are more likely to have climates where harassment and bullying thrive. I think it is no accident that cases of poor employment practices and exploitation of workers are becoming more prevalent in the current political climate. The current government demonstrates little or no commitment to equality and diversity, and the culture encourages dominant groups – large corporations, media, public school educated elites – to hold power.

The other key barrier to change is that it is hard, really, really hard. And takes years rather than months. There are no quick fixes. If you succeed, it makes the work environment better, it makes work more satisfying for the people who work there, and ultimately makes the world a better place.

If you want a more in depth analysis of these issues, download the ebook, Workplace culture - what is it and why is it important?

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[1] (Susan M Heathfield, 2016)

[2] (Susan M Heathfield, 2016)

[3] (Fried, et al., 2010)

[4] (IoD 2006 p15-16)


Fried, Jason and Hansson, David Heinemeier. 2010. Rework. Chatham : Random House Group Limited, 2010. 9780091929787.

Susan M Heathfield. 2016. Culture: Your Environment for People at Work. About Money. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 2nd June 2016.]

Institute of Directors. 2006. Wellbeing at Work. London : Director Publications Ltd, 2006.