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What Does Workplace Culture Mean?

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” 

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker were talking about educational organisations in their book School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It, but they might as well have been writing about business ones. 

Because workplace culture isn’t just a list of buzzwords: It runs deep in a company and has a far-reaching impact that, as a leader, you can only ignore at your peril. 

So, what does workplace culture mean then?

Leaders often have this misconception 

Workplace culture is often described in terms of values and behaviours. For example, a company may state on its website that its culture is founded on partnership, integrity and respect, and will then say things like: “These values are the bedrock of who we are and what we do.” 

And that’s it, job done, the culture is defined. I’ve often seen values being created and launched over email, simply telling staff ”This is how you must be from now on”, with no further guidance, support or reference.

But the truth is that there’s so much more beyond those words. There are actions, behaviours, and feelings attached to each of those words. 

Leaders often think their culture is written in their recruitment brochure, on the front wall as you walk into the reception, on the company t-shirts or badges. But a list of words isn’t what workplace culture means to their employees. 

Workplace culture is everywhere

To your employees, workplace culture is what they experience from their hiring interview all through to their exit interview. So it goes way above and beyond values. 

Let’s be specific. Workplace culture goes into:

–     Your recruitment process and your induction process 

–     How you create opportunities for learning and growth

–     How you deal with mistakes

–     How much autonomy and freedom you provide people

–     Your feedback process

–     How people give information upwards and how it’s received downwards

–     Your communication, both internal and external, as well as one-to-one

–     The technology you use

–     The way you systemise performance management and how you have those conversations around performance management

–     The way you choose to reward people—not just pay, but also conversations and celebrations, the recognition you give

–     The way you choose to exit people from your organisation

–     how you treat your customer vs how well you treat your staff


I like to describe workplace culture as a fingerprint. It leaves a trace on everything that your organisation touches. It’s in everything that you think, feel, say or do as an organisation, leader and individual.

The danger of a failing workplace culture

We expect employees to do the best work they possibly can for our customers.  

But in order to do that, people need to feel happy, healthy and productive at work, and purposeful towards your mission. If they’re not experiencing these things, there will be an impact on engagement, output and the service your customer receives. 

So you need to make sure that you are clear on how you live your values, both internally (with your employees) and externally (with your customer), and ensure that the meaning of your company’s values underpin EVERYTHING that you do. To say you have respect as a value, yet have countless claims of bullying in your organisation is a total contradiction. And the test of the culture and values comes in how you choose to deal with it.

BrewDog: a nightmare workplace culture leads to a commercial backlash 

Let’s take a look at an organisation like BrewDog. It offers craft beer and appeals to a younger demographic. It comes across as very funky and fresh. And its recruitment material gives you the same feeling too. Both the external and internal brands attract the same demographic. 

But last year, employees signed and shared an open letter on social media, denouncing how absolutely shocking the workplace culture was there. This happened around the time of the UEFA European Football Championship, and I remember walking into 

Tescos and shelves being completely empty of lager—the only ones left were BrewDog…

So there you have it: a failing workplace culture, a business that doesn’t honour its external brand internally, and a customers’ boycott

Innocent drinks: when internal and external brands align and everything clicks

Now take another drinks retailer, Innocent Drinks. What you experience when you buy an Innocent drink is something quite fun, fresh, and funky too. They don’t take themselves too seriously and love humour. They also make sure they create connection, and community and give back, especially through initiatives such as the  Big Knit 

I’ve read their book (A Book About Innocent: Our Story and Some Things We’ve Learned) and met with Tom Dorsett, their Culture Ambassador and UK Inclusion and Diversity Lead. And I could see that, as an employee, you equally have that funky, fresh, innovative experience. The organisation is very open and transparent. They celebrate people, encourage coming up with new ideas and create spaces for great collaboration and dialogue to happen. 

They’ve clearly defined their culture, and they know how to treat people well. As a result, their workforce knows how to treat their customers well, which is why they have such a fantastic product. 

Workplace culture is everybody’s business

Your people are at the core of your workplace culture. They should play a role in its definition. Because if they’ve designed it, they can see themselves in it. In turn, the customer will get a much better response and experience. So it’s critical that the employee voice is heard loud and clear when it comes to defining your culture, values and behaviours—they are your allies here. They can tell you what’s good, bad and ugly, and if you’ve got the right kind of culture, this is something you are definitely going to want to hear!  

And, when your people are in sync with your organisation, your customers will benefit greatly from it. So will your business reputation, shareholders and other stakeholders.

Are you wondering how to steer your workplace culture? Or, have you got some ongoing issues that need a fix, a restructure or a remote working model that’s not quite going to plan? Whatever is happening in your organisation, your culture is at the root of it. Drop us an email to book a free Culture Consultation, and let’s see how we can help solve your biggest issues, with the one thing that solves them all—culture! 

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