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Imagine you are at lunch with a close colleague and she asks, “How would you describe your company’s culture?”

Does your description start off a bit fuzzy? Do you find yourself sounding philosophical? Or, are you able to fluidly recite your mission, vision and values? Even better, can you pull out a little card that provides the key talking points with cool infographic or icons to show how much you or your marketing department has worked on it?

The culture conversation seems, complicated.

After three years of research working with and talking to more than 100 companies here is my working definition of culture:

Culture is what happens when you are not there. It is the invisible rudder that guides the ship.

That invisible rudder probably does not match your mission, vision or value statements.

So what are these expensive artifacts for? Let’s call them, for now, your public face. Culture, on the other hand, is what happens in the locker room or back in the kitchen outside the view of your patrons.

Next time you meet with your management team ask them what they think your culture is. If you hear the usual vague, flowery and mushy dialogue about values, vision and mission, pause. Now ask, “What are the behaviors and attitudes you think run this place when we’re not here?”

If your team is like the many that I’ve asked this question of you’ll experience a totally different kind of discussion. It will be messier, more engaged and emotional and you will probably discover…there is some work to be done. The good news? When you look at culture through this lens it becomes clear, tangible and actionable. Some of the teams describe the conversation like a light switch suddenly turned on or one of those drawings with the hidden image that once you look at it a certain way that hidden image pops out in clear reveal.

Culture answers the questions; how do we do things around here? What’s acceptable and what’s not? How do we treat each other? Where do I go if I get stuck? How do we hold each other accountable? How are differences resolved? Etc. Those answers are either by design or default. 

When culture is not clear we need management to answer those questions and make decisions. More on this in the next blog.

If culture is clear then your employees can easily translate their role into action without the direction of a manager. Google, for example, lists Employee Experience as its number one value. The head of corporate real estate translates that to mean, “My job is to reduce the friction of work.” How liberating and instructive that kind of thinking becomes.

Most companies do not live with this level of clarity or congruence. Gallup confirms this conclusion with more than fifteen years of employee engagement surveys.

The kind of culture we have been talking about is sometimes called the shadow culture. Shadow cultures are often described as resistant to change, throwing rocks at new ideas and lurking to undo management’s best intentions. The shadow simply ignores or passively disengages to take the wind out of the company’s sails. Gallup measures the different levels of this shadow resistance. Their annual research reports year after year that 70% of your employees would rather be anyplace else than your place of work. 50% are creating inertia and 20% are actively working against you.

I believe the first step to creating the kinds of cultures we saw in the most engaging companies begins by getting rid of confusing your public face with your locker room culture. 

When Peter Drucker pronounced his famous aphorism, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” he wasn’t talking about your mission, vision and values. He was talking about shadow culture.

Unless you are among a few exceptional companies your mission, vision and values is not your culture!

Exercise: For the next week keep a simple journal or notes on the positive behaviors you see in your office that cause you to take notice. On the opposite side of your journal or on a separate paper note the negative behaviors, or expressed attitudes.. That’s it, nothing too complicated. No outside consultants. Just that.

In the next blog I’ll share with you what we’ve had several leadership teams do with information and some of the surprising outcomes.

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