Company Culture Defined

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

- David Foster Wallace

Company culture surrounds us every day when we go to work. For that reason, it can be hard to define precisely. We have a sense of its importance to the way we operate at work, but we can’t point to any one thing and say “this is our company culture.” If we can’t define it, how can we manage it and fully understand its importance?

Here is our working definition of company culture: Company culture is a set of shared values and priorities that guide the behavior of individuals within an organization. Values and priorities are not immediately visible to an observer, but behaviors are. So we can make inferences about a company culture based on the types of behavior that are common, recognized, and rewarded among employees.

It is important to note that there is no judgment about ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ cultures in our definition. Instead, we evaluate the strength or weakness of a culture based on how consistently members share similar values. A weak culture will have members with different priorities and conflicting behaviors whereas a strong culture will have members that act with relative unity toward shared goals. By having a strong culture, a company is able to channel employee efforts towards strategic goals efficiently and effectively.