Let’s conduct an investigation, shall we? Put on your houndstooth jacket, ascot, and thinking cap, and let us partake on an endeavor to assess the “real” culture of your company. That means bypassing the red herrings, smoke screens, false positives, and similar shiny objects meant to distract.

To help, here are 7 “lookouts” when you are defining your culture:

  1. First, separate the “noise” from true cultural traits. What really influences results at the company vs. what seems important. Wheat from the chaff stuff, get all biblical with it. Don’t accept corp-speak, have people communicate with their own words. For example, what the hell does this mean? “We strive to be the supreme customer-oriented provider while facilitating extraordinary growth with sustainable profitability.” I don’t see people using that in everyday conversation, do you?
  2. Don’t mistake “squeakiness” with criticality. There can be loud bleating that leads nowhere, volume does not equal importance. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? Yep, and it also monopolizes your time and resources; sometimes the wheel is squeaky because it needs to be replaced (a little HR humor; very little, I realize.)
  3. Take time to research the history. There may be sacred cows in the organization that are ingrained so deeply into the fabric of a company that they absolutely must be included in a culture definition. Quirks, personality traits, little peccadilloes that are as much a part of you as your own obsession with pointing all desk ornaments to face Westward. Shut up, it’s perfectly normal.
  4. Use your eyes more than your ears. When describing culture, employees may be quite adept at paraphrasing the corporate mission statement. Watch how things really work when defining a culture. I work for a company that defines itself as “Casually Intense” – as I walk around the campus I see leaders of industry in jeans and Sanuks as they carry about the business of curing cancer. I’d say that my eyes vouched for my ears.
  5. Ask the same question in various ways to calibrate the meaning of various terms. Example: “Would you define your organization as risk tolerant?” Then later, “What mistakes are not tolerated?”
  6. Explore the data behind the message. A “Performance Culture” can be easily identified by historical information regarding merit rating (and dollars) distribution. I’ve yet to meet an executive who doesn’t vocalize the fact that his/her company culture is “performance driven“; but when you look at the numbers, a different story materializes. Could a 3rd-party observer immediately recognize your key performers by looking at a spreadsheet of historical merit awards and/or bonus awards? If not, you’re not quite there yet.
  7. Don’t only focus on the usual suspects. High-potentials and Senior Leadership are great at explaining the culture, but make sure to check in with the people shoveling the coal, too. There’s also value in looking outside the company to see what others are saying. Customers, former employees, current employees on social media – your reputation is highly indicative of the culture you have cultivated.

The underlying message here? Transparency – be honest and encourage the same from those who contribute to the discussion. There’s no prize for fabricating a culture you aspire to have, the key is identifying what makes your company tick, then improving where you see an opportunity.