May 27, 2011 | Leadership, Workplace Culture + Practices

I’m often asked by individuals I meet outside of NRG Systems to describe our company’s culture. I generally don’t like this question, even though I have an easy answer.

The question itself is non-specific and so the answers are often non-specific. I might describe our culture as collaborative, dynamic, hard-working, and open. And while these are accurate descriptors, none of them really tells a person what it’s like to work here (which is what I think is the real question behind the question).

The answers to any of these questions – and many others not mentioned – may be what the person asking about culture really wants to know about.
There are better questions that will elicit more specific answers and also tell a lot about a company.  What are some shared workplace practices that you use here? How does information get communicated in the company? How are decisions made? How do you describe the management style of the CEO and top executives and how is it different and similar to the management styles of mid-level managers? What kinds of company events do you hold? What do you do for fun? And I really do like the simple question: What’s it like to work here?

General Principles

Regardless, when I talk about culture, here are some general principles I like to share:

    1. A company has a culture whether it was created intentionally or not.
    1. Culture changes over a period of time whether you’re paying attention or not.
    1. Change in culture is not necessarily a bad thing, and is sometimes necessary.
    1. A change in leadership can affect the culture.
    1. Establishing and maintaining the company culture is not always a top-down process. Anyone and everyone you hire have the potential to impact the company culture, especially in smaller companies.
    1. Sometimes non-human factors, such as economic conditions and market trends, can change the company culture.

Being Proactive about Culture

Be willing to pay attention. To know about your workplace culture and how it may be changing it requires some effort beyond just being present and scanning the environment.  It’s important to be engaged with the staff at all levels, have conversations, learn what’s happening on a day-to-day basis, understand your company’s objectives and top priorities, and be in tune with employee morale.

Be willing to be intentional. If there’s something about your company’s culture that needs to change, you need to be willing to do the work to make that change. Involve the right people, take the time and steps needed to make a change and appreciate that it will take time.

Be willing to let go. I feel fortunate to work for a company that I’ve seen evolve and grow over the years. Every once in awhile, someone who’s been here for a long period of time (sometimes longer than me) will say that it’s not what it used to be. And yes, this is true. There’s no way for it not to be true. Culture at its core is really all about the people who work in an organization. It’s the people who establish the norms, practices, values, operating principles and behaviors that make your company who and what it is. It’s the people who determine how to respond to external influences on your company culture. So to the extent that people change, your workplace culture will change. It’s a necessary thing and it can be a good thing, too. You need to be willing to pinpoint the pieces of your culture that don’t fit anymore and let them go to make room for new practices or norms that are needed.

Getting Back to the Culture Question

In the future, when I’m asked the non-specific question about our company’s culture, I think I’ll answer with examples, metaphors, or stories that may help the listener better understand and feel what it’s like to work at my company. This should be easy to do if I’ve been paying attention.