What is “Business Culture”, Really?

If you Google (sorry, Google, to use your name as a verb) “Business Culture Definition”, you’ll get many different definitions:

  • “…an evolving set of collective beliefs, values and attitudes” (businessculture.org)
  • A collection of six elements from Harvard Business Review
  • A “model or style of business operations within a company” (businessdictionary.com)
  • “…I feel the most important distinction to make here is that company culture is something that is pre-existing in your company’s genetic code; it’s not something that employees bring with them.” (Forbes)
  • The beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. (Investopedia)
  • A blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths (entrepreneur.com)
  • Corporate culture refers to the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. (inc.com)

You know, I’m a simple man with a simple brain.

It seems to me that when you look at these and other definitions of what culture is, most of them can be boiled down to two things: How we treat each other and how we get our work done.

How we treat each other is expressed in our core values. Core values should not only be named, they should be defined and then expressed in positive and negative behaviors. Positive behavioral statements indicate the type of actions that live out the values. Negative behavioral statements indicate the type of actions that violate the values. All four categories (name, definition, positive statements and negative statements) need to be written in order for the individuals within the organization to understand what type of behaviors are acceptable and which are not. But this is only half of a culture, to my way of thinking.

Process is how we get things done. The better our processes, the more likely it is that we’ll have less conflicts. People will know how to do their job relative to the inputs they receive and the outputs they need to give to others in the organization. When processes are clearly taught and resourced properly, people work better and are generally more happy. When processes are loose or randomized, people have to negotiate various levels of chaos and sometimes guess as what’s expected of them. This raises anxiety in individuals and the organization. Such randomized activity also becomes the soil in which office politics can grow.

So, I think of culture as having two core parts: core values and good process. How we treat each other and how we get our work done. Show me a great culture and I’ll show you clearly articulated values and clearly taught, lean processes.

Like I said, I’m a simple man.

Bill English