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A Sustainable Corporate Culture Embraces the Values of All Members

Article originally posted in Playbook - American Management Association Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D., and Thomas Kuczmarski.


articlephotoCorporate culture can be extremely hard to change. Not only is it difficult to define something so intangible, but it can be challenging to identify the appropriate steps to turn a desired culture into a reality.

Culture has a direct effect on an individual’s productivity and motivation. However, many companies don’t take the time to assess and analyze their culture to see how it can be improved or better tailored to their vision and goals. Most teams or organizations have never written down how they go about their work, interact with others, organize, reach important decisions, or select and care for employees. Yet we all have this detailed knowledge within us. These examples and more are components of an organization-wide culture, and we share a general understanding of it without thinking or talking about it directly.

What is culture?
Culture is the shared knowledge that tells us what is important (values) and how to act (norms) in a particular environment or setting. A group’s culture tells its members what they need to know so that others within the group will accept them and support their actions. This specific “cultural information” is developed and learned within the group. It enables members to read the behavior and events that they observe and better relate to others. When employees don’t carry the same cultural information, watch out. One can see the conflict coming from around the corner. Culture must be developed and shared from the ground up.

While culture can be created based on intent and design, too often it develops unconsciously without a concerted effort or focused vision for what its members want the culture to become. Forming a culture involves developing and sharing a common set of beliefs (values), norms (behavior guidelines), attitudes (points of view), goals (plans for the future) and information (detailed cultural knowledge). That’s why culture needs to be consciously cultivated by every member of the organization—from the CEO to the lowest-level employees. It must be a collective effort of all the people who work there.

Difficulties in changing culture
The benefits of creating a shared and collaborative culture are significant. Once achieved, it creates a sense of belonging, and employees feel that what they do is important. It generates more cohesion among team members and aligns everyone along the commonly agreed upon values and norms that have been set.

So why exactly is culture so difficult to change? We have discovered five reasons:

  • It is a human endeavor. People are inherently resistant to change in all aspects of life, and corporate culture is no exception.
  • It is in our heads and our hearts. It requires a balanced connection between our logical reasoning and our emotional feelings, which can be challenging.
  • It arises from shared knowledge and behaviors. Getting everyone in the organization aligned on accepted values and norms can be a very difficult task.
  • It is self-reinforcing. The longer a system or culture is in place, the more difficult it will be to uproot the status quo and make significant change.
  • It is a powerful, invisible force. It can be difficult to draw attention to the intangible and convince people of the value brought by an improved culture.

Mirroring culture vs. transforming culture
Mirroring is the process of becoming part of a culture by living the group’s values and practicing the group’s norms again and again until the behaviors are finally automatic and habitual. It enables the culture of the group to solidify and grow over time. For this to occur, team members watch carefully and listen intently to the spoken and unspoken signals that individual members use to interact with each other. Once they have observed the rituals of the group, they begin to mirror or imitate the behaviors they have observed until they become second nature.

Unfortunately, most traditional leaders want their employees to mirror the existing corporate culture rather than participate in transforming and evolving it. Culture needs to embrace the values of all employees—not just the values of a few people at the top. Why shouldn’t employees have a say in the norms and values of their culture? If we close ourselves off to their input because they’re “new” or “young,” we disempower them with the belief that their values aren’t important to the rest of the organization.

Your culture needs a good-sized “pot.” There must be room for each member’s unique and personal ideas and contributions. Know that your culture will be an ever-changing, always transforming creation. A sustainable and vibrant work culture can serve its members for a lifetime.