Culture is one of the biggest buzz words in business today. Interestingly, culture is an amorphous word that means something different to people in definition and context.

In 1952, there were 650 definitions of culture, according to “Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts & Definitions” by A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn. Today, as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, culture comes with over 6,000 definitions.

Over the past few days, I participated in a culture building workshop with former WELCOA president David Hunnicutt. We dug into ways to define culture and intentionally design it within an organization. We landed on the definition that culture is the invisible hand that guides us to act and perform in a certain way. It is under the surface.

Take grocery stores as an example of an invisible hand that guides us. Offering more than 148,000 items to choose from, successful grocery stores are designed to sell products. They know they’ll sell more if customers turn right when entering to immediately encounter the good smells of the bakery and colorful stacks of fresh produce to put the customer at ease. Shoppers push a massive cart and shop an odd number of aisles with costlier product placed at eye level. Grocery stores are designed to make us act in a certain way.

The same can be said about the organizations we work for. The way a company intentionally designs culture is a process that follows five key concepts:

1. Culture begins with relationships. Culture is about inspiration, the feeling of crafting something spectacular with others. It is impossible to intentionally create culture, unless are comfortable with each other. The best four ways to get to know someone is to learn their name, what inspires them, their personal history, and develop an emotional connection with them. To build culture, it’s absolutely critical that you spend time on relationships.

2. Make the case for culture. In 1900, the words used to describe work were: creation, effective, chemistry, service, duty, action and assistance. Today, the words for work are: toil, travail, trial, struggle, stress, servitude and drudgery. This shift is illustrated by these appalling statistics that 56% of baby-boomers have less than $10,000 saved for retirement or that 115 million Americans have pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes, or that US pharmacies fill more than 4 billion prescriptions each year. We seem to conveniently forget that what companies do to impact an employee at work has a ripple effect on their wellbeing, their families, and their communities. We can do better.

3. You need a why. In order to change culture, you need to have a clear and compelling reason for why you want to change. People go to work where they are celebrated, not tolerated. We can influence and improve our environments. From a wellness standpoint, science has shown us that practicing three specific preventative behaviors (avoid tobacco, be active 30-minutes a day to help maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet) will reduce the risk of chronic illness by 80%. Think of the lives that could be changed for the better if this was understood and encouraged as a cultural norm in the workplace.

4. Know where culture comes from. Culture either happens by design or by default. Most organizations let culture evolve organically by everyone. The reality is that culture comes from the founder (someone who has done their homework and presents a vision, tells a great story of a better idea) who attracts followers with the idea who then pass it off to fledglings (inexperienced people, new to the organization). Make culture a deliberate practice in your organization.

5. Create a great culture. A significant culture change won’t happen all at once, rather it is like sand-bagging; start small and if it works, it can be replicated with more bags laid down. Cracking the culture code is a matter of assessing, addressing, and adjusting. In the assessment phase, it’s critical that key stakeholders make the commitment to the process. Remind key stakeholders that together, we are going to design and shape the invisible hand. The assessment is a way to see what is actually going on within the organization and will reveal strengths and opportunities to improve, which offers good insights that you can move forward with. There are dozens of vendors that offer a culture assessment, including O.C. Tanner’s culture assessment, which focuses on the core elements that engage employees.

What will success look like? High-performing, effective, and healthy cultures are built by design. The ultimate goal is to create a culture that allows people to accomplish things that are worthy of the time they spend at work. To establish meaningful relationships so they can experience the true joys of working together. Genuinely feel good about what they do each and every day. And stay healthy in the process.


  • Liz Carlston

    Workplace Culture Mobilizer

    Works with O.C. Tanner to help people thrive at work, connecting employees with purpose, accomplishment, wellbeing and recognition.