What is your definition of “company culture”?

Didier Elzinga: At its simplest, company culture is “how we do things around here.” There is a lot of science in how to measure, understand and improve aspects of company culture, but one of the ways we like to think of it is that a brand is a promise to a customer, and culture is how you deliver on that promise. What is the experience you need your people to have for you to be successful? That experience is your company culture.

Sarah R. Johnson: Very simply, company culture represents the typical habits and behaviors of the company’s employees. In other words, this is how we act toward each other on a day to day basis, how we communicate (or don’t), how we work together (or don’t), etc. There are many dimensions that can be used to describe a given company’s culture, but very simply, culture reflects “what it’s like to work here.”

What do you feel is the most important thing to know about company culture?

DE: Company culture will never be perfect and will change over time. In order to see what’s changing, you need to measure it and act upon it.  From a technology perspective, you can get tons of feedback, but the challenge is not the cadence of measurement. It’s the cadence of action. It’s what you’re going to do about it. You have to stop and ask what you’re willing to change. From the top down, there has to be a commitment to using feedback to do that. Then, look for opportunities to create feedback loops. Culture is hard. Don’t just ask a question once, get an answer, and never do it again. To improve the culture, you have to commit to the iteration and the loop.

SJ: Culture must match and support company strategy. I have seen many companies create a strategy to be more innovative, or more entrepreneurial, or faster-moving, and yet their culture, those daily habits and behaviors, don’t support a new culture. A company cannot become more innovative if the typical habits and behaviors are focused on limiting risk and keeping decision making at the highest levels of the organization. Habits take time to change, so culture change happens slowly.

What kind of impact does company culture have on employee engagement?

DE: Company culture and employee engagement are directly linked. Engagement measures how connected employees are to the mission and goals of the company, if they are willing to stay long term and if they would go the extra mile. You can have a strong culture without engagement, but it is very hard to have engagement without a strong culture.  

SJ: Company culture can impact engagement in multiple ways, but most particularly when it prevents employees from being successful and productive in their roles. Imagine the frustration of the employee in the company that is trying to be more innovative. The employee might be excited about this new direction, but if the old habits don’t change, the employee will soon become frustrated because the organization’s culture is holding them back. Mismatches in culture can lead to disengagement. On the other hand, if the current culture supports the company’s strategy and enables employees to be productive, that will positively influence engagement.