The term “company culture” gets thrown around a lot.  There are thousands of articles and studies out there—on topics like the impact of culture on productivity, the importance of flexibility and evolution of company culture, how to maintain company culture as you scale and everything in between. Despite the ever-increasing dialogue —or perhaps because of it—culture has become a buzzword often deployed to suit one’s purposes, but rarely communicating real meaning.

For example, talk to any hiring manager and one of their primary talking points will be how great their company culture is. Talk to a disgruntled employee and they may tell you how the culture at their company has changed and isn’t what it used to be.

In the start-up world (my own area of expertise), great culture has become synonymous with free snacks, video games , casual dress codes, and no-track vacation policies. We might tout our open plan offices or boast that even our CEO sits out in the middle of everyone, not in a corner office. All because of our great culture. All of these workplace perks certainly contribute to a fun environment, but if that’s all it took, any company could easily build a great culture. Just buy all the trappings, institute the appropriate office layout, and provide the right perks. In fact, many CEOs and founders do exactly that, and consider the culture checkbox to be checked.

But when I hear employees boast about their company culture, or when I hear concerns from employees regarding changing culture, whether they have a ping pong table rarely makes or breaks how they feel about their company at the end of the day. At the same time, rarely can anyone articulate what exactly is important when it comes to culture, beyond the obvious perks. So, let’s define culture.

Culture is the sum of the behaviors, beliefs, values, and customs of a group of people, particularly those that distinguish the group from another.

It’s how people communicate, what people believe, what people value, and how things get done. The visible symbols of culture may include things like ping pong, free snacks, or how the office is laid out, but the less visible symbols of culture* are just as important. Invisible culture includes things like:

  • How are decisions made in the company? Collaboratively, or top-down?
  • How do employees win support for their ideas and initiatives? Do they seek a groundswell of support or formally present their idea to leadership? Are there mechanisms for them to offer new ideas at all?
  • How does conflict get resolved? Is it handled openly and proactively, privately and quietly, or ignored altogether?
  • What is the relationship between staff-level employees and leadership? Fully transparent? Respectful and collaborative? Formal and distanced?

These, and other cultural customs, will first and foremost stem from the organization’s founder. The natural behavioral tendencies of the founder will seep into all levels of the company, sometimes intentionally but more often organically.

The sooner an organization owns invisible culture, the better.

A great starting point is distilling cultural customs into core values, and pruning out any unhealthy habits that may have taken shape. Next, examine how those values interact with the organization’s visible signs of culture, and identify what else might be contributing to employee happiness and satisfaction (and what might not be working so well). Listening is key, and remember—perception is reality. How employees perceive the way that decisions get made, or the company’s approach to transparency, is what’s important, whether that perception aligns with how you feel decisions truly get made, or the company’s self-proclaimed approach to transparency.

Once we re-educate ourselves on what culture means and how it manifests itself both visibly and invisibly, we can work on identifying what makes our own companies unique (or not). Hint - it’s not just the ping pong table.

Suggested Reading: For more on the different layers that make up culture, check out the first chapter of The First 90 Days, by Michael D. Watkins.

Photo via @thisismkg Instagram. Brannon is a culture expert at Aviary and can be reached on Twitter @brannontate.

Brannon Skillern

Brannon is currently scaling people, process, and culture at Aviary (acquired by Adobe). She specializes in balancing organizational health and company culture against operational efficiency in rapidly growing startup environments. Follow her on twitter at @brannontate.

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