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Who Owns Company Culture?

Cultivate Empathy
Who Owns Company Culture?

The default is that the People Team (aka HR) sets and maintains company culture. And, sure, they are always the team responsible for culture KPIs…but who owns company culture? When it needs to change, who is on the hook?

man standing in a crowd, pondering "who owns company culture?"


Think back to the last time you joined a new company. You probably watched a video about Corporate Culture that listed Company Values, using words like “Customer-Centric” or “Passionate.”

In an all-hands, your organization’s leader tells a story that illustrates one or more of these Values, typically about an exceptional employee.

But it begs the question: Do these Values reflect your personal experience as an employee?

Unfortunately, research from MIT Sloan shows that Company Values have little to do with the lived experience of company culture. But that doesn’t mean that the People Team got it wrong.

When the Executive Leadership Team got together and co-defined the Company Values, they agreed these words should define what the company stands for, which they expect their employees to adopt and experience. Perhaps the ELT embodied the Values in that room on that day.

It’s time to clarify the role of Values: They are aspirational ethics, not indicators of Company Culture.

Company Culture Is Now Team Culture

Research into the Great Resignation revealed that the number one reason people reported looking for a new position was Toxic Workplace Culture. In fact, toxic culture was 10x more significant than compensation as the reason for resigning.

Throw hybrid work into the mix, and now most People Teams are forging new paths to curate company culture. They are expected to provide a consistently great employee experience to their mostly remote staff… it’s a significant challenge!

Let me bring this down to earth. Ultimately, the people we work directly with and for every day have the most significant impact on employee experience. In a Hybrid or Remote working world, Company Culture is really Team Culture. People Team leaders’ new task is to enable their direct line managers to be arbiters of culture.

What Is Culture If Not Values?

A fascinating thing about culture is that it has no clear lines, which makes it difficult to pin down. We anthropologists agree on this simple definition: Culture is defined by what is considered “normal” for that group.

“Normal” is what we collectively agree is acceptable behavior, spanning all aspects of the human experience. It can be how meetings are conducted, who is encouraged to speak during Q&A, the dress code, whether f-bombs are offensive, or even ideas about whether we should eat at our desks.

Every time you do/say the appropriate thing, expect others to act appropriately, and punish inappropriate behavior, you’re curating culture.

You Are Responsible For Culture

Yes, you.

To be more specific, you and every other member of your culture are constantly co-creating it. It happens unconsciously, it is fluidly morphing with the ideas of its members, and it adapts to external forces such as environment and circumstance.

Culture is a human construct that anthropologists hypothesize was a way to keep a group organized and cohesive through times of great change. Everyone has influence within their own culture(s).

Culture changes when the ideas of its members change and/or when external forces change circumstances. When someone has a new idea about what normal should be and can convince a mere 25% of their fellow members to adopt this new normal, the entire culture changes. You own company culture.

The truth is, you have always been responsible for your company (now team) culture, but I’ve just made you aware of that responsibility. You can help your teammates feel respected, valued, and empowered by the company you both work for. Embody the culture you would like to experience. Use your inherent power to shape what is normal.

Now that you’re aware of this power, what are you inspired to do?

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