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Your Culture: Live It Out Before You Write It Down

Your Culture: Live It Out Before You Write It Down

by Natasha Jamal

Story Highlights

  • Culture statements matter less than leaders' behavior
  • Discover your workplace culture first, then codify it
  • An effective culture statement reflects the deepest identity of a brand

Executives often obsess over their culture statement, spending months on end crafting the perfect message about their purpose, mission, vision and values. Many leaders can recite theirs by heart.

But can their employees?

Too often, maybe more often than not, an organization's definition of its culture stays in the C-suite. It may be communicated down, or even be part of the performance review repertoire -- but unless the company lives and breathes what the culture statement says, it's just a piece of paper.

That's bad for business. Culture influences everything: from the employee value proposition, to risk and compliance, to retention (especially for millennials, who care deeply about purpose in their work), to productivity, to differentiation of the brand for customers, to organic growth.

In fact, Gallup has found that while it is helpful to have a culture statement to codify your culture, this statement matters much less than leaders' behavior. So, a culture statement that leaders actually live out is essential for creating positive business outcomes. It's an integral part of the corporate operating system. And, done well -- with care, thoughtfulness and honesty -- a culture statement that reflects the deepest identity of a brand can instruct employee behavior so thoroughly that the brand becomes uniquely significant to its customers.

Discover your real culture before you write about it.

Before taking pen in hand, leaders have to think about the current state of their organization. Purpose is at the heart of culture, but culture is bigger than purpose. So, first think about the key benefits that purposeful cultures can provide: attracting world-class talent, focusing engaged employees, developing employees' strengths, etc.

If that's the culture you have, say so. But such statements have to resonate across an organization and be backed up by leaders' behavior. Gallup has found that only 41% of employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for and what makes it different from competitors.

If the culture you want is not the culture you have yet, communicate how your purpose will achieve the culture you aspire to -- and explain how you intend to reach it. That will inspire and align employees throughout the org chart.

Too often, maybe more often than not, an organization's definition of its culture stays in the C-suite.

Your next step, then, is to move your perspective all the way down to the individual contributor level. How do the key aspects of your culture affect day-to-day work? Do they encourage innovative thinking? Invite new ideas from employees at all levels? Allow your employees to accept and learn from failure within appropriate parameters? Assure autonomy?

Then, think about the best of your company -- the attributes that you're proud of, the events and products you tell your family about, the employees who make you glad you work there, the things your company can do that no other company can. Think about the rough times too -- tough decisions about letting people go, re-orgs, policy changes -- because the way your company navigates hardship is a meaningful part of your culture.

Next, ask employees at every level of the organization for their thoughts and beliefs. Ask your former employees. Ask your customers. Distill what you hear from them and what you know to be true, and you'll find your real culture. Then, codify it in a new or updated purpose, mission or vision statement. Communicate it. And actualize it.

That's the most important part. And that's where most mission statements fail.

Model your culture to make it real.

The reality is, most organizations have similar culture statements -- you'll see "customer centricity," "accountability," "integrity," "results-driven" and "innovation" everywhere. Those are important attributes and should be part of every culture. They can differentiate an organization and drive performance, but unless they're actualized, they're just buzzwords.

Leaders actualize the purpose and values of their culture by modeling them. Take customer centricity. It's one of the most common phrases in corporate culture statements, but a Harvard Business Review study found that CEOs spend only 3% of their time with customers, on average. To truly put your customer in the center of your company, you must put yourself in the customer's world. That's how you know what customers really need. (And it's especially important for B2Bs -- 60% of customers are indifferent toward and quite liable to leave their B2B providers.)

Or, consider innovation. Gallup research shows that genuinely innovative companies encourage their employees' creativity, are comfortable with risk, and hire managers who coach, not boss. But only 18% of workers strongly agree that they can "take risks at work" that could lead to important new products, services or solutions, and just 29% strongly agree that they're "expected to be creative or think of new ways to do things at work." Leaders will create a culture of innovation only if they take risks and are creative -- and encourage everyone else to follow their lead.

Obsess over a defined, codified and unified culture. Not a piece of paper.

Culture begins with an organization's purpose, but it's expressed by leaders' behavior. That's why recalling tough decisions is such an important step. An organization's real values come to light when it's under pressure; how your leaders behave then tells you who you really are. It tells you if your purpose is real. And it tells you what must change, if anything, to create the culture you want.

Sometimes, leaders think that they need to change others' behavior to improve or unify a corporate culture, but that evades accountability. Culture change starts with the behavior that leaders model themselves. If you want to be customer-centric, spend time with customers. If you want to be innovative, take risks and be creative, and extend that freedom down the org chart. Be the change you want to see.

That's what executives should obsess over, not the drafting of a culture statement. Unless a culture is modeled by leader behavior and actualized throughout the organization, that statement is just a piece of paper.

But when the reality of your culture is defined, codified and unified (and changed, if need be), a culture statement is a vital part of your operating system. It guides decisions and actions, differentiates you in the market, and helps you grow. Your whole organization can recite that culture statement by heart -- but far more important, they live it too.

What's at the heart of your workplace culture?

  • Try this: Center your culture on development driven by engagement. Download our paper to learn how.
  • Create a culture that inspires people. A strategic partnership with Gallup will help you develop a culture that differentiates you from the competition.
  • How would Gallup do it? Read our paper to learn Gallup's approach to building a culture that enhances your brand, improves business results and fulfills your organization's purpose.


Natasha Jamal is a Senior Consultant and Culture Transformation Practice Manager at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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