Ten Laws of Company Culture

By Alicia | culture and values

Jul 04

I’ve been a practitioner of HR for many, many years.  From that seat, I’ve observed, fostered, and shaped company cultures.

People tell me I’m good at it.

Much of what I did was intuitive—instinctual.  While that’s a great start, it doesn’t do you much good unless I’m working with your business directly.  In this post, I’m writing down what I believe I’ve learned so you can apply this knowledge to your business.

I’m calling them the Ten Laws of Company Culture.

Here they are:

1)      Culture is an emergent property. 

It’s not the thing you built.  It’s the thing that happened as a result of your guidance, direction, and systems, with other uncontrollable variables.  Or it’s the thing that came into being in the absence of guidance and direction.  It emerges whether you play an active part in the design process or not.

My point is that you can’t steer culture like a big semi truck down the highway to a pre-programed destination on the GPS.  You can set up guardrails and give all the individual drivers on the highway a map and some coordinates.  Get the difference?

2)      Culture makes itself visible, and therefore definable, by way of behavior themes.

If your culture is “defined” with generalized high-minded-yet-vague adjectives, all you’ve done is give your people words they can use to justify their chosen methods.  Patterns of behavior have the biggest impact on your ability to deliver on your strategy and, by extension, succeed.  You and your team will stay in sync far better when core values are defined and talked about in behavioral themes.

3)      Culture that is cultivated and fed will propagate.

Culture that isn’t fed and cultivated is replaced by a different culture—a culture you may not want.  These unwanted behavior themes will strain your team’s ability to succeed as a business. Feed your culture through stories about those behavior patterns.  Feed your culture even more by recognizing and rewarding role models.  Cultivate your culture through customized vernacular and practices that incentivize productive behavior.  These are the sorts of things that constitute the care and feeding of a healthy company culture.

4)      A healthy, robust culture reduces the need for policy and process controls.

Want to keep your overhead, bureaucracy, and administrative policy layer as lean as possible?  Do culture well.  How does that work?  Culture, as behavior themes, serve as guardrails and demonstrate shared understanding.

It’s a trust-based system. Anchoring behavior management on a trust-based system relieves the necessity to implement coercion through policy.  Policy is anchored in control and fear instead of trust.  There is a place in business for control and fear.

However, the more you can anchor on trust, the more energized people feel.  Up to a limit.  Few reach that limit, and if you are wondering if that might be you, it probably isn’t.

5)      Culture defined too narrowly creates dangerous organizational blind spots. 

Narrow culture constraints that are adhered to rigidly will give you a team that is too-much-all-alike.  Or, as the fancy talkers say, “overly homogeneous.” When your team is overly homogeneous in their behaviors and thinking, you lose out on diversity of thinking.  When you lack diversity of thinking, you have big, gaping blind spots.

These blind spots are dangerous, because they make it more likely you’ll miss big movements inside and/or outside of your business that will cause you big pain.  Do you want big pain?  I didn’t think so.

6)      Culture is not (only) a top-down phenomenon.

There are many well-meaning consultants who will tell you that molding your company into the culture you want is simply a matter of cascading a codification of dictates from the ivory tower. Acculturation a la command and control.  You can get great ideas from these methods, but if coercion-driven compliance is your only tool for acculturation, you are missing the boat on how people really relate to their work and to each other.

Groups of people—like organizations, like businesses—are what some geeky academics call “complex adaptive systems.”  You don’t need to understand that phrase, and in many cases, I don’t recommend you use it.  Here’s the take-away. People are whole people who are influenced by each other, their outside lives, and the changes all around them in sometimes unpredictable ways.  This includes your culture.  If you want to do acculturation really well, figure out how to involve the whole team in evolving and innovating how you go about doing it.

7)      A strategy-aligned culture accelerates viability of the strategy (all other things being equal).  

Take a look at your culture, your behavioral themes.  Now take a look at your strategy.  What behavior themes are necessary to deliver on that strategy with consistency and high quality?  If the behavioral themes of your culture aren’t congruent with the behavioral themes needed to execute on your strategy, you have a problem.  You want awesome strategy execution?  Get that culture in sync.

8)      Any culture will also have sub-cultures. 

Keep it simple without being simplistic.  Place emphasis on what matters most for anyone in the business, no matter the function.  There’s your gold.

It’s not the end of the world in your accounting and sales teams have somewhat different versions of the company culture. Each function serves, well, a function that will naturally create some cultural and behavioral diversity. If you don’t allow of enough looseness for this diversity to comfortably occur, then maybe you’ve defined things too tightly.

9)      Culture expectations that are congruent with human nature tends to thrive and engender trust.  

Consider this scenario. We have a culture of never making a mistake.  And we work tirelessly harder than anyone else.  And we’re all 100% self-directed.

How’s that sound?  You want to work there? Me either.

If I’m spending a ton of energy overcoming my humanity to try and model someone else’s unreasonable ideal, guess what I’ve got a lot less energy to spend on?  That’s right.  My job.

Guess how much I would trust the organization?  Not much.

Don’t be those guys.  Be better.  Be congruent with human nature.  So your culture thrives and so does your business.

10)   Culture and organizational design are interdependent.

If you don’t have the right people in the right seats in a right-sized, well-designed organization, it’s going to put a dent in your culture.  The impact will be non-trivial and bad.  Yes, really bad, no matter how well you follow laws 1-9.

Let me illustrate.

Imagine you have a job you are good at and enjoy, but your boss doesn’t add value to your problem-solving and instead micromanages.  So you go over her head for help and she doesn’t like it when she finds that out.

How does this change your sense of the culture?

Now imagine you work for a centralized function that is called upon to customize services to several different departments without adequate staff.

How does this change your sense of the culture?

Now imagine an organization that’s functioning well.  That’s when your other culture work can really shine.  You can’t do acculturation in a vacuum.  Get design right too.

I hope these “Laws of Company Culture” are helpful in making sense of your business’ culture.

I leave a lot of room to interpret how implementing these laws help you improve (or correct) your culture in way that improves your business performance. If you have specific questions, you are welcome to post in the comments.  I will respond as promptly and thoughtfully as I can.

Or you can call or email me.

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About the Author

I'm Alicia Parr. I am a fractional Chief People Officer and organizational engineer for growth businesses making the leap from small to mid-sized. I use people science and a coaching orientation to solve hairy people problems and navigate the speedbumps of fast growth. I can help you and your business be even greater than you already are. Join the conversation below by commenting or contact me directly.