What is Culture? (And why definition precedes measurement)

What is Culture? (And why definition precedes measurement) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Humor me for a moment.  I’d like you to pause and consider the following questions.  If you’d like bonus points, write down or type your answers out.  Ready?

Here you go:

  • What is organizational culture (or corporate culture)?
  • What is employee engagement?
  • What is talent?

Three seemingly simple questions.  If you took the time to actually ponder these questions, how do you feel about your answers? More importantly, how do you feel about your ability to easily and coherently answer these questions?

Don’t worry if you struggled to answer these questions. Most managers and leaders do, even those who work in HR.

Last week, I sat on a panel to discuss workplace culture and employee engagement. With me on this panel were some really accomplished HR leaders from large organizations. When asked about the difference between culture and employee engagement, one of my fellow panelists explained that “culture is the heart of the organization and engagement is the body.”

While I appreciate the imagery of this explanation, it’s far from a definition. It’s a metaphor. Even if you agree with the metaphor, I’m not sure it helps answer the question in any way that is either actionable (how do you change a culture?) or measurable (is the culture working for us?).

One reason that we’ve had such trouble creating effective and sustainable positive workplace cultures and employee engagement is that we are really sloppy with our definitions. Despite these terms and concepts being of critical importance to the work we do in our organizations, we speak of them in very generalized terms and metaphors.

Improvement requirements measurement. Measurement begins with definition. 

Let’s say for example that you decide you want to improve your health. That seems like a meaningful goal and it feels good to talk about improving your health.

But what exactly does “better health” mean? And how exactly will you do it?

Improving your health could mean a variety of different things. To one person, that might mean losing weight. To another, it might mean reducing their blood pressure.  To yet another, it might simply mean the ability to run a mile without stopping.

“Health” is a word that we all generally understand but means something different depending on your circumstances.  If you are to improve your health, you must first get very clear on what health means to you. You must define it.  Only then will you understand how to measure your progress and where to focus your efforts.

If health means achieving a specific body weight, how you measure and achieve success will look quite different than if your definition of health is the ability to run a marathon.

If you can’t define it, you won’t improve it. 

Enormous sums of money are spent every year by organizations who are trying to improve employee engagement through management training, recognition programs, surveys, and more. And yet, when you ask leaders within these organizations for their definition of employee engagement, the most common answer you’ll hear is “I’m not sure.”

Imagine asking a leader for their definition of “profit” or “revenue” and hearing the same response. If it came from a leader from in the Finance and Accounting department, they probably would find themselves looking for a new job.

How can we expect to improve employee engagement when we aren’t clear what it means? How can you expect to change a “culture” when we aren’t even sure what culture really is? How can you expect to cultivate and win with talent if you can’t clearly define talent in the first place?

Start with the definition.

Defining these terms and concepts for your organization can be challenging and time-consuming. It requires slowing down to think and ask some important questions. But, it is worth the effort. Because without the clarity of knowing exactly what you are trying to impact, you are leaving much of your success to chance.

  • Kevin

    Awesome article Jason and I completely agree. It seems I often begin my meetings and presentations with a few definitions and nomenclature. I’m currently working on an article distinguishing between Mental Illness and Mental Health.

    Following your instructions, here’s what I wrote prior to finishing this article:

    Corporate Culture is an overarching philosophy and approach to work and doing business, inside and outside, the collectives believes in and acts upon. (e.g. Our culture is “total support” and each employee wants to do anything possible to help his/her co-worker.)

    Employee Engagement is when an individual is fully motivated, involved and driven to perform their job and support the organization. It is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work. Engaged employees are emotionally attached (i.e. feel connected) to their organization and are highly involved in their job. (e.g. I couldn’t wait to arrive at the office the next morning so I could share my idea with my co-worker. Within a few hours we had conceived of an industry-changing device.)

    Talent is a combination of the skills, experience and topic creativity combined with the ability to apply them. (e.g. My educational training and years learning the “tools of the trade” has led to earning 66 patents and products marketed worldwide.)

    Kevin R. Strauss, M.E.
    Worksite Wellness Specialist – Mental & Emotional Health

    • Jason

      Thanks Kevin. The power of clarity is pretty amazing. And you get definite bonus points for not only writing definitions, but posting them in the comments. Kudos.

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Jason Lauritsen