Why Is It So Hard to Own Your Corporate Culture?


No one would argue that talent is critical to competition, or that capital or innovation are essential to profitability. So why is it easy to overlook how fundamental corporate culture is to employee engagement—an equally important driver to a company’s success?

Wouldn’t it be important, then, to take steps to identify, measure the impact of, and intentionally nurture your culture?

Throughout my career helping organizations build their employment value propositions (EVPs), I have found that, consistently, the missing component in the EVP will stem from the organization’s inability to define their culture. Companies can tell you what they do, how they do it, what services or products they sell, and what makes their product or service the best in the market; however, the one truly missing piece is their ability to articulate what their culture is about.

Unlike a company’s vision, mission, and strategy, which are explicitly articulated by leadership with the goal of guiding the organization’s activities, culture is pervasive and invisible, working silently in the background to influence how people think, make decisions, and interact. It represents the shared values, beliefs, and even the hidden assumptions that color our behaviors and affect how work gets done in the organization.

It’s pretty easy to understand why we struggle to define our corporate cultures. A simple Google search will give you six different definitions for the word “culture” that could apply to organizations, describing everything from social dominions to “a way of life.” What is fairly consistent throughout each definition, though, is the humanistic aspect of the word.

It’s this “human” connection that makes an organization’s culture hard to describe. How does work get done? What’s the human thread that runs through your company? And how do you explain the forces that drive work behaviors?

Some find the idea a little too ambiguous or squishy to articulate well. Others find themselves at a loss because the values they’re trying to convey are aspirational in nature. For example, a company might say it has a “culture of transparency,” yet observation will tell you communications tend to be siloed. Or a company may say that that it has a “culture of accountability,” but complain that there is no sense of urgency among employees and that they seem to rent, rather than own, their jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, aspirational values are extremely important. Every person and every company need to have goals, and understanding who you want to be as a company is vital; however, being able to define truthfully where your culture is today can help you uncover the barriers to achieving those goals.

So how do you go about identifying and supporting the drivers that “get work done” today?


Go Off Script

You can’t measure culture, but you can measure the impact it has on your team.

Employee engagement is the benchmark we use to gauge the level of employee commitment to their job, their team and the leadership of the organization, which results in an increased willingness to go “above and beyond” normal job responsibilities.

Gallup has been tracking employee engagement in the U.S. since 2000. Though there have been some slight ebbs and flows, less than one-third of U.S. employees have reported been engaged in their jobs and workplaces over the past 15 years.

Where is the breakdown? What is it that the employee is experiencing that causes them to disengage? Can we get the answer from an Employee Engagement Survey?

Most organizations fail to get as much as they can from the open-ended comments employee are invited to write on engagement surveys. Sometimes, the negative comments, although very much noticed, are ignored if they don’t match our script, especially if we describe our culture in aspirational terms. But let’s face it: we live in the social communication age. Employees expect that when you ask for feedback, you will listen and use the information in a way that has value.

Make your employee engagement data collection more transparent and share all comments, not to brag or disparage, but to stimulate conversations about what it is like to work in your organization and how it is not the same for all employees. The results can provide truths about the organization, uncover bright stories that can help you define the good, and even help uncover barriers standing in your way of having the environment you want. But if you are looking at the results to influence a predesigned outcome, then stop using engagement surveys.



We often rely too much on data and analytics to give us the full story. Listening, on the other hand, can give you insights no stats can.

It’s hard for leadership to engage every employee in conversation. But encouraging your employees to share stories of engagement is a great way to discover what makes your workplace really run. Encourage managers to seek out the disengaged for input, as well. This conversation may result in learning and change for both the organization and employee.


Show Commitment from the Top, Down

In most organizations, no one has as much influence on the culture as the CEO. The style of the CEO, the way she behaves and communicates, what she underscores in speeches and meetings, and the executives whom she recognizes and promotes, all send signals to the rest of the organization about the culture.

That’s why it’s important for leadership to re-engage with employees at least twice a year. Focus groups and face-to-face leadership meetings (with real dialogue, not prescriptive questions) can help you measure your success in human terms, frame your culture in current stories, and go a long way to nurturing the culture you aspire to have. Begin by asking what you can do as leadership team to help them be more effective, and find out out what they need (both the tangible and intangible). Find out how you can open communication streams that can bolster engagement. And most importantly, make the employees you speak with understand how their job has meaning.

The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, once said, “The only thing we have is one another. The only competitive advantage we have is the culture and values of the company. Anyone can open up a coffee store. We have no technology, we have no patent. All we have is the relationship around the values of the company and what we bring to the customer every day. And we all have to own it.”

High performance companies know they need to work hard to identify, define and deliver the right culture to meet market needs. They know it takes commitment and nurturing to create the organizational environment that attracts the right people and sets them up to successfully deliver on the strategy.

But, in doing so, they create an environment where people can be the best they can be.

Written by Patty Silbert

President of Newton Talent since 2018, Patty Silbert has over 30 years of experience developing the innovative solutions that help HR professionals just like you meet their most pressing recruitment challenges and their companies achieve their talent acquisition goals. She is a regular writer and speaker on the subjects of recruitment strategy, employment branding, HR technology, and leadership.