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Harness the Power of Your Organizational Culture in 3 Steps

Harness the Power of Your Organizational Culture in 3 Steps

by Iseult Morgan and Nate Dvorak

Story Highlights

  • Many leaders can't articulate their current or ideal culture
  • Six in 10 employees feel disconnected from their company's purpose
  • After a difficult year, leaders must assess their culture's ability to drive performance

The events of early 2020 forced most companies to quickly adjust to new challenges. Now, almost a year later, many are still laboring in this "new normal" environment -- increased safety precautions, scaled-down teams and empty offices. With teams scattered geographically and connection opportunities often limited to computer screens, now is a great time for leaders to check in on their workplace culture.

Culture is the optimal performance driver. It is an unsigned contract between an organization and its employees that gives individuals license to accomplish goals and get things done without the burden of worry or uncertainty about negative repercussions. And every employee in an organization has the power to amplify or detract from its culture.

There are endless definitions of the word culture itself. Gallup believes that organizational culture simply comes down to "how we do things around here." Confidently displaying, for the world to see, how work gets done in your organization informs how employees and customers alike perceive and choose to interact with you.

Given this, it may bewilder you to find out that when Gallup talks to executives at organizations that have incredibly strong brands, they often sheepishly admit they don't even know what their culture is. They cannot express in words what their current or aspirational culture is supposed to be.

Gallup believes that organizational culture simply comes down to "how we do things around here."

Culture is often an unwritten code. Unfortunately, when leaders don't have a clearly defined or codified culture, their vision can be easily overlooked or inconsistently interpreted across the organization.

The consequences of an inconsistent, unclear workplace culture can be dire because front-line managers and employees ultimately create the local culture on their teams. If employees don't understand leaders' vision for the culture, their actions won't support -- or worse, will inhibit -- that ideal culture. This can result in a work environment that is chaotic and disengaging, where employees feel creatively stifled and leaders struggle to realize their strategic aims.

You might think that you don't need to define and communicate a certain standard culture across your organization -- that uniqueness is a part of your culture and different corners of your organization require different cultures to succeed (e.g., your sales culture, your headquarters' culture, your regional culture).

Culture can and should manifest itself in different ways across your organization, and much like in the world at large, it is always evolving. But defining a universal culture (with a corresponding set of behaviors and associated values) is essential because it drives high performance across your organization and gives employees focus and agency to deliver exceptional work that aligns with your shared purpose.

Unfortunately, when leaders don't have a clearly defined or codified culture, their vision can be easily overlooked or inconsistently interpreted across the organization.

The truth is, culture is dynamic. Defining culture can be a moving target, and leaders must continually articulate it to safeguard for the future. Organizations need to be comfortable with pursuing potential for what's to come without the certainty of knowing they'll achieve it.

To tap into your organization's full potential, Gallup recommends that leaders take these three steps:

1. Audit your organization's culture.

Though most leaders can pinpoint how their role supports their organization's purpose, most workers can't -- only four in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that the mission or purpose of their organization makes them feel their job is important. That means nearly six in 10 employees don't feel that way. Six in 10 are showing up to work feeling some level of disconnect from their company's mission or purpose -- and ultimately, from their own workplace culture.

To check in and assess the state of your organizational culture, ask yourself:

  • Is our culture well-defined and clearly communicated?
  • What are our organization's core values?
  • What do those values look like when employees exemplify them in daily work life?
  • Are those values consistent throughout the company, or are different values or cultures embraced by role or department out of necessity?
  • If our organizational leadership changes, what is the likelihood that our culture changes?
  • Can our customers identify our values after interacting with our employees?

Sometimes, in exploring these questions, Gallup finds that organizations misidentify specific employee attributes as culture -- seeking job candidates who describe themselves as "hardworking" or "brutally honest." That isn't distinctive enough to define a unique culture. Your organization's culture is more about "how we do things around here" than the specific levers individuals may use to get those things done.

2. Make sure you define your culture correctly and inclusively.

Leaders should anchor their ideal culture in the results it creates -- in the employee experience, customer experience and bottom-line outcomes. This ensures that the unique value each employee brings continues to propel your high-performance culture forward.

History has shown that cultures fail when they don't welcome divergent opinions or ways of thought. If employees can bring new ways of reaching your goals, their methods should be treasured and celebrated rather than seen as counterculture or, more ambiguously, that the employee is "not a good fit."

The truth is, culture is dynamic. Defining culture can be a moving target, and leaders must continually articulate it to safeguard for the future.

When evaluating whether your people currently embody your desired culture, embrace the notion of culture add, in stark contrast to the notion of culture fit from the 1980s. The latter is used as a catchall term to hide subjective preferences for a candidate or employee, while the former is an objective measure to push an organization to consider how what is different about a person can bring positive impact.

Integrating a culture add evaluation into an organization's hiring or performance management process serves as a checkpoint to ensure that an individual's strengths are appropriately rewarded for the value they bring, enhancing your organization's inclusion strategy.

Every employee who is aligned with your organization's values and oriented toward the same goal has the potential to make a positive impact, even more so because they bring a different perspective. This could mean expecting alignment on things like innovation, customer centricity, transparency, etc., but placing less emphasis on things like industry-specific experience or standard professional credentials.


Some examples of what culture add does not include are things like shared educational backgrounds, personal values or life experiences. Thinking "I'd like to have a beer with them" should never be a selection factor.

Defining and communicating a clear workplace culture helps leaders not only mitigate errant, sporadic employee interpretations of it but also creates a unified employee experience. The risk posed when leaders aren't able to effectively articulate their cultural vision is that you'll end up with a team full of people who look, sound and think alike (likely against their own will). Such homogeneity often manifests in a narrow alignment with an organization's status quo, which is rarely a recipe for an effective, innovative, creative team -- the type leaders cultivate when they're open to opposing viewpoints.

3. Specify how your values support that ideal organizational culture in day-to-day work.

To identify and articulate how your values reinforce your workplace culture, lean on your high performers who are on the front lines with your customers. They are the ones who, through their actions, are actively building and contributing to your organization's culture every day. With their help, mock up developmental scenarios that might occur in their work environment that will help prompt other employees to speak to how they might handle that same situation.

Bear in mind, there are no right or wrong answers. The goal is to learn more about a star performer's thought process and problem-solving approach to understand how the values play out behaviorally.

A classic example is the call center agent who sometimes diverges from the company's established "best practice" of a fast resolution time in order to resolve the experience of a frustrated customer. While their key performance indicator may go down as a result, the behavior delivers on the company's brand promise of customer centricity. The exercise highlights the potential inconsistency between operational best practices and the brand's promise to customers, allowing for greater alignment in the future.

In completing this study, you'll end up with a series of tangible examples of what it looks like when an employee embodies your organization's values.

Determine whether your organization intends to sustain your existing workplace culture (while bettering it every day as it evolves) or needs a cultural transformation. To assess this, we advise leaders to bring in a third party to help audit the culture and ensure that their professed "ideal culture" will drive the employee experience and outcomes they seek. If your company is going through a cultural transformation, you will also need to consider how to bring current employees along on your journey toward your future, aspirational state.

Culture is always aspirational, always evolving.

Every employee in your organization either brings your workplace closer to your aspired culture or detracts from it.

By investing time in objectively auditing your organizational culture, you are taking the first step toward unleashing the potential of your people.

Remember that it's your managers who are on the front lines (even amid today's unique workplace challenges), influencing your organization's cultural potential locally and collectively. By conveying a clear and consistent culture, you equip managers to embody desired values and coach employees to do the same. In turn, you can see improvements in business outcomes while ensuring that your workplace moves ever toward inclusivity and a thriving work environment regardless of where the work gets done.

The best company culture is the one that allows your people to succeed:


Jessica Schatz contributed to this article.

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