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What Kind of Culture Do You Work In?

Bill Howatt  Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance
This op-ed was originally published in Halifax's The Chronicle Herald on December 4, 2018.

Take a blank piece of paper, find a quiet place and take five minutes to write out how you would describe the culture you work in each day. This exercise will describe your perception of your workplace culture. If you ask five peers for their perceptions, they may have some similarities and some differences.

This kind of exercise typically uncovers a range of cultural perceptions such as how employees treat each other, the experience employees have with their direct managers and senior leadership, the level of pride, the degree of psychological safety, general attitude of the workforce and the overall expectations for employees.

Culture ultimately defines a workplace’s social norms and the degree of social conformity with respect to the experience employees, managers and customers can expect. The importance of creating strong cultures will be the focus of our upcoming conference.

When senior leadership fails to clearly define them, some type of culture and strategy will emerge by default. It wouldn’t take an expert in culture and strategy long to categorize an organization with respect to the kind of culture and strategy it has in place.

Work cultures can be described as positive, negative or some combination of the two. When an organization’s culture is put into the public domain it can attract or turn away new employees. Perhaps this is why some individuals, before applying to or joining an organization, do their own research to understand what employees in a particular work culture have experienced. Websites like Glassdoor are places where people can go to share their perceptions, which can influence a potential hire’s decision to apply.

Many leaders promote the importance of culture and understand that cultural perception and experiences can help attract and retain top talent. So, it’s common for an organization to spend time and money creating its purpose and core values to help align workforce expectations and to influence the organization’s culture.

Why do some organizations struggle to build their desired culture?

The concept of designing a desired culture in theory makes sense, but expressing the kind of culture senior leadership wants and achieving it are two different things.

One step sometimes missed in culture design is mitigating what I call cultural confusion. Cultural confusion is a simple concept to relate to. It’s when employees are sent memos on their organization’s culture, are told in meetings by leaders how wonderful it is to work in the kind of culture they do, or hear that the organization has won an award because of its culture.

Cultural confusion occurs when there’s a difference between what an employee hears or reads about how the culture is supposed to be, compared with what they experience. The consequence of negative experience is it can decrease loyalty, trust and commitment.

The percentage of employees who are experiencing cultural confusion is important to understand. The degree of confusion can become the perceived norm and what this group of employees believes can influence their behaviours and ultimately the culture, if the numbers are high enough.

What senior leaders can do to reduce cultural confusion:

  • Describe the top five culture experiences every employee can expect. Have a group of senior, middle and frontline managers and employees collaborate to pick what they believe are the top five experiences that are critical for every employee daily to create the kind of culture senior leadership wants for all employees. Write a short sentence that describes each desired experience — for example, all employees would be empowered and encouraged to provide their direct manager their ideas without invitation.

  • Get employees’ perceptions on a regular basis. Every two months, have employees complete a short pulse check that captures the current workforce climate with respect to perception and experience against the top five. Less is more. Having a laser focus on five things that have been defined as being critical for the culture is worth monitoring. Employees come and go, and managers change, making culture dynamic. Monitoring the percentage of employees who don’t score at least a four or five on a Likert scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree) provides senior leaders with factual input on employees’ experiences and the degree of cultural confusion.

  • Address present cultural confusion. Building a culture takes commitment, being open to feedback, and acting on it. Addressing present cultural confusion requires getting a baseline to understand the percentage of the workforce who are not feeling the five experiences and then finding out why. Employees will believe in the culture when they see action by senior leaders to understand why there are gaps and are acting to close them. This may require training managers, replacing ineffective managers, or dealing with some employees who aren’t adhering to minimal expectations. A consistent determination and discipline by senior leaders to get the top five expectations for all employees’ experience is how they can reduce cultural confusion and its associated negative consequences. The upside is creating a culture where employees want to come to work each day.

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