What Is Culture?
Culture can be hard to nail down because it’s largely comprised of intangibles like shared identity, values, unwritten rules, and stories. But culture is stronger than virtually any other factor in determining employee behavior. Culture guides what people do when you’re not looking, when no one’s telling them what to do. It drives how they treat each other, and your customers, vendors, the community, the environment. It dictates what they prioritize and pay attention to. It’s which way they jump when push comes to shove, regardless of what your company policies and press releases say—and regardless of whatever strategic goals you’ve painstakingly crafted and communicated.
A dysfunctional culture is actively unpleasant and counterproductive. An ill-defined culture leaves employees with conflicting understandings of what’s valued and expected, which is counterproductive in other ways. A strong, healthy culture can bring people together to achieve high performance, accomplish strategic goals, become the corporate citizens they aspire to be, and much more.
Here are 6 fundamental and transformative benefits that transforming your culture can bring to your organization.
1. Align Culture And Strategy
In our organizations, defining and refining strategy typically gets much more attention than doing the same for culture. Yet the two are deeply interlinked.
A Harvard Business Review Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture  summarizes the relationship of strategy and culture:
Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.
The authors then repeat the famous quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
That’s because humans instinctively internalize the culture around us. We take on the colors, the talk, and the walk of our tribe. We’ve all been navigating the tricky social world of unspoken rules since we were born. We know at a gut level that when a leader says “do this” but everyone around us does something different, going along with the herd is the safest way to belong and stay out of trouble.
If, however, a leader announces a strategic goal and paints a culturally resonant vision to go with it, employees “get it.” If that vision is also inspiring and offers identity and purpose, employees will go above and beyond as they strive for that goal.
If employees in your organization seem uninspired and unaligned with company strategy, look to your culture.
2. Align Employees At All Levels And Across Functions
Culture doesn’t just align people with goals, it also aligns them with each other. Culture provides a framework of core values and basic priorities in which to operate. That means employees don’t have to stop and argue over which values and priorities really matter—that’s already clear. Once you set a goal or direction, you don’t have to micromanage what employees do or provide guidance every time they get stuck. Instead, employees are empowered to apply their own ingenuity and understanding to situations. They find more varied ways to contribute, cooperate, and solve problems to achieve goals.
Especially if you have a patchwork organization from mergers and acquisitions, intentionally cultivating a culture that draws on the strengths of each contributing company can yield great benefits in alignment and performance.
3. The Right Employees: Recruiting, Retention, And Selective Turnover
Clear identity and culture attract and retain people who resonate with that identity and thrive in that culture—or can at least tolerate it. If it’s a positive culture, the attraction will obviously be much stronger, and you will have more top candidates vying to work with you. If you already have a positive culture and want to make the most of it with new hires, here are some tips for including social learning in your onboarding.
While employees who thrive in your culture will certainly stay, employees who do not will leave. You may lose some excellent people, but if they can’t bring their excellence to bear in your organization, it’s better to make room for someone else who can be excellent in your environment. If you want your organization to be the top choice for recruits and for current employees alike, cultural transformation around identity, inclusion, and personal contribution can be powerful.
Strong identity, a clear sense of purpose, and the camaraderie of working together toward common goals all feed a sense of belonging and job satisfaction, higher motivation, reduced burnout, less missed work, and better physical and mental health.
For me personally, these things make work a joy. And who wouldn’t prefer to work surrounded by people who are excited to be there? These are benefits money literally cannot buy directly, at the individual or the organizational level. Yet improving culture can turn these around.
If your employee morale is low, a program that focuses on cultural elements to foster connection and purpose can have a big immediate impact.
5. Succession Planning And Continuity
Culture is by definition bigger than any one individual. Having a strong, positive culture makes it easier to judge the fit of various candidates during succession planning. And when a successor steps up—whether it’s a team leader or the CEO—cultural continuity smooths the transition for them and for the entire organization.
To make your succession planning more resilient, invest in foundational cultural elements that will outlast any one leader, strategy, or market trend.
6. Long-Term Dividends
Strong culture is self-perpetuating. When a cultural element has pervaded all levels of an organization, employees at all levels will continue to live by that culture and to inculcate new hires in it for many years. Changing deeply ingrained negative cultural elements can seem daunting. It requires intentional, well-designed intervention with reinforcement at multiple levels, applied over time. The good news is that systematic change is possible, and positive culture changes will not only differentiate your company, they will continue to pay off for many years to come.
Where Do You Want To Go?
What is your goal or your desire for your organization? To make diversity, equity, and inclusion something you do every day rather than something you just talk about? To be so innovative that you become a market disruptor? To transform all your teams into resilient, high-performing teams?
Whether your goal is great or your problem is large, look to cultural transformation for gains you could not otherwise achieve.