Best company culture definition

There are too many different definitions of company culture. You’ll easily find hundreds for this umbrella term and Wikipedia isn’t very helpful either. Let’s approach culture in organizations in a practical way.

What is organizational culture?

Instead of trying to define it in a comprehensive way, let’s first look at its characteristics.
Corporate culture is

  • like a common DNA, it serves as a frame of reference on how people behave
  • both the glue that holds an organization together as the compass that provides direction
  • ever-present in the sense that it is there, always (whether you manage it or not)
  • composed of observable elements: architecture, processes, corporate clothing, stories, gossip  … but also less/ not observable elements: values, underlying assumptions, unwritten rules…
  • learned or transmitted through social interaction
  • dynamic and subject to change in response to internal or external influences
  • not necessarily the same in all units, subcultures can exist

If you do prefer a more formal definition, I like the one offered by Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan

School of Management. In a shortened version, it reads like this:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned … considered valid and, therefore, is taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel

So culture is the guiding tenet of a company. It steers behaviour and success, just like a strategy does.

How does culture relate to values?

In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein divides organizational culture into three different levels.

You probably see why it is sometimes referred to as the onion model.

In this view, values are the written expressions of an organizational culture. So culture is not equal to values, but values are like beliefs that steer behaviour. Behaviours that define the unique way in which employees relate to each other, to their work and to the outside world.

So values and culture are interlinked but not the same. You could put it like this:

Values are your starting point and culture is what you end up with.

Values together with company traditions, rituals and symbols help people understand how to behave and relate. Some organisations have a set of documents that describe their company culture. It usually details: the company’s mission or vision, the core values and traditions, rituals and symbols. Call it a company culture code if you wish.

Are you interested to learn what sorts of values there are and how you can best define your own unique set? Look out for the next post in our Culture series.

Koen Schreurs
Helping HR & Management to boost company culture & engagement