About 15 years ago, I was sitting at an office dinner party, and the company president was giving an emotional speech about the importance of company culture. The speech was inspiring, revolutionary, and confusing.
Confusing because I was unsure what he meant by culture.
Did he mean the behaviors he would like to see in the organization? The camaraderie and connections that existed within the walls of the building? Was it a combination of both things? Or was it just a fancy way to discuss the emotional goo that binds us all together?
I didn’t know then and, honestly, I still don’t.
Business leaders often talk about “culture,” and its importance to the success of an organization. We hire “Culture Leaders,” lead with “culture first,” and hire for “culture fit.” However, when I ask people what culture is or what it means to them, I get multiple and sometimes conflicting, answers.
“It is a feeling when you walk into the workspace.”
“It is how we treat each other and how we can expect others to show up.”
“It’s not being an asshole.”
Culture isn’t a great way to describe a work environment because it means so many different things to so many people. The term is loaded, exciting, problematic, and idealistic. It means both nothing and everything. It is said that you cannot see it, but you can only feel it. But can you even feel it? Is it something that can be fixed and cultivated? Can it be challenged? Or is it something that just is?
I am not sure.
I am sure, however, of how much I dislike the word. I dislike that we all pretend to understand it but cannot describe it. I dislike that hiring and termination decisions are made on something so intangible. I dislike that I accidentally use the word all the time.
When I look up the meaning of culture, the general definition is that it is the rules, language, shared history, and other things that exist in a space. In companies, employees interact with it, influence it, and adapt to it. Culture is its own thing, separate from the people that make up the organization.
But I believe when we talk about culture, we are specifically talking about the people. We are talking about how people interact and influence each other and the organization. It is how each individual shapes, challenges, grows, evolves, dismantles, and builds on the behaviors and norms of the organization. Those behaviors and norms should be, and are, fluid.
When people come together by choice, it is called a community. And community, unlike culture, only exists because of the people that exist in it.
Community is a tangible thing.
I know what a community looks like. I know what it feels like when I go there. It is a place in which parts are working harmoniously, and also a place in which eyesores exist. People come and go from a community, people stay their whole tenure in a community. We need diversity and inclusion to make a community work properly. A community has rules that govern behavior, and roles that are defined.
If “culture” is the concert, “community” is the people swaying in unison. That sway is what I believe companies want. That choice to be part of something, together. That individual decision to interact and create something new and be part of something bigger than yourself.
I want to build healthy and thriving communities in organizations–not a fantastic culture that lives separate from the individuals that interact with it.
Words matter so whatever word you choose to describe the feeling of an organization, it should have shared meaning, and it should feel tangible and actionable.
Perhaps you have a word that you would like to replace culture with? Do you have a better alternative? Do you like culture?
Let me know!
Katie Augsburger is a Founding Partner and Employee Experience Strategist for Future Work Design. She has been creating and implementing successful human resources programs for over 15 years. Her work has helped organizations win Oregon’s Best Company To Work, Fortune Magazine’s Most Flexible Workplace, and Fortune Magazine’s Top Consulting Firms among others. Katie has an M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction as well as a B.S in Sociology. She is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) and Certified Compensation Professional (CCP).