Organizational Culture: How to Build and Why You Don’t Need a Culture Code to do It

The phrase ‘company culture’ is often used to describe the general working environment within a firm. But what’s it telling you?

It’s open to interpretation. You could take it as meaning that there’s a fixed way of working and a certain attitude that you’re expected to assume to get along there. A kind of ‘culture code.’

The culture code of a workplace can become so embedded in the collective psyche that it influences the structure of the company itself. Hiring managers could subconsciously favor candidates who seem to reflect the ‘culture’ of the firm. Better-qualified applicants could be rejected because it appears they may challenge that culture.

In that way, the culture code is self-perpetuating. Having rigid, unwritten rules for behavior and attitude stifles personality and skills. It can also be a huge barrier to communication, teamwork, and productivity. Nobody wants to stand out from the crowd for fear of being viewed negatively by colleagues and managers.

Alternatively, a culture code  can create a positive, fluid environment that fosters initiative and encourages individuality while staying true to the company’s core principles.

So how do you create a positive, progressive culture shaped by your staff rather than a static set of strict rules?

The Culture Code 

As we just said, the culture code of a company doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but why do you need one at all?

Every firm needs to communicate its general principles. It’s essential to have these principles so that even before they join, staff understand what standards of behavior are expected and how they can expect to be treated by colleagues throughout the organization.

It’s one thing to go after the most talented people for your company, but they need to be a good fit, as well as being technically excellent. Therefore, it’s essential that you clearly describe the culture that exists within the firm during the interview process. That way, there’ll be no surprises, and the addition of the new hire is more likely to be harmonious.

It’s good for the company, but it also helps the interviewee decide if they can see themselves being comfortable in that environment. The salaries of jobs they’ve applied for may all be similar, and other companies they’ve approached may be equally or even more successful than yours. What can make the difference in whether the talented person in front of you joins your firm or a competitor can be their understanding of the company culture they’ll spend so much of their working life in.

If it’s a good fit between candidate and company, you’ll get the best from them as a person, and get better productivity from them as well. . They are more likely to stay with you for the long-term, meaning that they’ll become a valuable resource when onboarding further new employees, and high staff retention reduces training and recruitment costs.

Culture Code VS Organizational Culture

‘Isn’t culture code just another name for organizational culture?’ we hear you ask.

The answer is no, it’s not. They’re two quite different concepts.

Organizational culture is the general framework of behaviors, expectations, and practices that employees must work within. It can be seen in many ways that affect the behavior and attitudes of your staff, including punctuality, employment terms, and many more.

Organizational culture reflects the company ethos. It can be a key factor when candidates are considering applying for a position in your firm and how long they stay with you. If staff can buy into your organizational culture, they’re far more likely to be fully engaged in their roles and with colleagues. At the recruitment stage, they don’t know what the culture code is like, but they have an immediate understanding of the wider expectations.

As companies evolve, the organizational culture is also likely to evolve. What worked when the company started trading will need to be revised from time to time. As business strategies and external conditions change, workplace dynamics are also likely to change, so it’s essential to review the organizational culture.

The most profitable companies have organizational cultures that align with the values and aspirations of their employees. When everyone’s pulling in the same direction, it’s much easier to achieve individual and company goals. Of course, everyone needs to buy into the organizational culture and be prepared to contribute to improving it when necessary.

That day-to-day living of the organizational culture is what we call the culture code. However, we shouldn’t be misled by the term ‘code.’ Don’t think of it as a statute that must be obeyed. 

The culture code is organic because it’s powered by humans. Think of it more like an open-source computer code: anyone can contribute, constantly improving it (with the occasional glitch, of course), with everyone benefitting from the collective contributions.

Suppose issues arise that appear to be in conflict with the culture code. These ‘glitches’ may lead to positive changes in the culture code that prevent recurring issues. In that case, the organizational culture should provide a healthy environment in which problems can be addressed without conflict. That’s the difference between a culture code that’s a rigid set of rules and a healthy one that revolves around the behavior of team members.

Culture Design Exists?

It certainly does. From the outset, there has to be a clear, commonly held vision of what the company’s values are and what standards everyone’s expected to maintain.

That starting point for a firm’s culture will often be the values held by the company’s founder. However, over time, those norms are bound to be challenged and consequently evolve in the best interests of the company.

Sometimes, a company will establish a values committee to jointly frame or review the company culture. If the culture code established is a positive one, it will usually be employees who challenge the norms and contribute to improving them, so the culture remains relevant and effective. 

A good example is focus group structure, where working groups are formed that comprise a cross-section of colleagues drawn from a variety of paygrades and functions.

Open conversations can take place between colleagues from across the company that can improve relations and create a basis for true collaboration for the common good.

However, it’s essential that focus group sessions become a regular event, not just a one-off. If they’re just done as short-term fixes, nobody will see any long-term benefit in going through the exercise. Conversely, if the company supports regular sessions, participants see improvements happening that they’ve contributed to. In this way, staff feel they really are making a difference. That can sometimes win over even the most cynical team members who have seen such initiatives come and go without making any meaningful difference.

The increased trust empowers everyone to actively contribute to the workplace culture. When everyone feels comfortable challenging aspects of the working environment without fear of reprisals or ridicule, it’s an incredibly powerful driver for improvements to the company culture and increased profitability.

How to Multiply Your Culture?

We’ve already mentioned how the organizational code of a company that’s starting up is usually shaped by the attitudes of the founder, but what happens as the firm grows?

If the company grows in a steady, phased way, as many do, it’s easy to keep in touch with its culture and observe its evolution.

However, if your company experiences sudden and dramatic growth, your focus from that point is likely to be on dealing with the increased workload and recruiting additional staff to handle it. That’s a pivotal point for your company’s culture.

Sometimes, it’s the supposedly trivial things about a firm’s culture that make a significant difference to employees. For example, the tradition of remembering every staff member’s birthday each year makes them feel that they matter as a person, rather than just being valued for what they produce. The problem that can arise with a large influx of staff, is that that personal touch can be overlooked, and staff can start to feel like they’re just a cog in the machine. That change in culture, while not deliberate, can completely change people’s attitudes to their work.

Even though you have more staff to consider, you should still maintain this kind of personal tradition. For many people, there’s no better combination than a company that’s flourishing and growing, and still retains some of the small business touches that the employees have become accustomed to.

Similarly, a more complex internal structure that includes managers and department heads can inadvertently remove the direct access to the boss that staff used to enjoy. Having an open-door policy and even working alongside your team from time to time can reassure them that you’re still in touch with what goes on for them on a daily basis and that you’re still directly available to them.

It’s unlikely that you would deliberately move away from the things that created the positive, productive environment that drove the company forward, but it’s essential to be mindful of their importance so that they don’t fade away.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we’ve made clear that a well-defined company culture is essential to the well-being of a productive workforce, and consequently, the firm’s success.

Without that framework of the company’s principles and expected standards, a culture code could form to fill the void, which won’t necessarily be a good thing. Without the general structure of a clear organizational culture, the culture code could get out of control and create all kinds of issues.

The wonderful thing about a well-designed organizational culture is that it provides standards but gives employees the freedom to work within them, allowing for their natural personalities and professionalism to shine through, benefiting everyone.

Allowing flexibility in how people behave, individually and collectively, means that a culture code becomes irrelevant. As a result, every team member knows that they’re valued and respected and how they’re expected to behave accordingly toward colleagues.

What you then have, is an organic culture of openness and honesty, rather than businesses imposing attitudes and behaviors that everyone feels they must adopt in order to fit into the workplace and progress.

In summary, these are the key takeaways.

  • Your firm’s values need to be clearly communicated to staff through its organizational culture
  • Successful recruitment is about the candidate being a good fit for your company, not just qualified for the role
  • Don’t forget the positive culture that’s driven the company’s success to date, particularly at times of rapid change
  • Your company’s culture should be reviewed by a cross-section of colleagues to check that  it’s still working properly.
Mateus Oliveira

Mateus Oliveira

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