Culture. In the business world, sometimes culture can feel like a meaningless word. A “soft stuff” term that jargon-filled men in suits love to say so others feel good inside. But why is that? Why does culture feel so abstract for so many?
Chances are when you come across somebody who is skeptical or cynical about business culture—and all the conversations that center around it—that person is merely somebody who has been in a bad culture. There’s a good chance they worked at a place that loved to claim it had a good culture, but the deeper that person dug, the more they found the company’s claim to be false. So, through guilt by association, the concept of culture becomes meaningless. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What culture is (hint: habits)
The truth is quite simple: Culture is a collection of habits. Because you can tell people about your culture until you’re blue in the face—as many recruiters can probably attest—but seeing (and feeling) a business culture in action is the only way to truly know it.
A recruiter can tell a candidate all about an organization’s values, but that doesn’t make them any different than anyone else with values. Why? Because most companies who create values come up with good ones. And until a candidate sees those values put into action, or until job review after job review confirms the value is legit, it won’t have the impact it needs to.
But when a company value becomes a habit, then it truly becomes a part of the culture. For example, if the value is “don’t take life too seriously,” and if a company makes it a habit to practice this value, it will show. Candidates will notice the easy-going vibe when they take an office tour, and it will stick with them. Not because there’s a big sign on the wall that states the value, or because the recruiter talked a lot about it, but because the culture of the organization was crystal clear when they saw it. Cultural habits are hard to hide (for good and bad). The employees will have legitimately seemed at ease; they will have been smiling. And (dare we say it) they will have genuinely seemed happy.
So, if you’re trying to build a culture, don’t assume it will just happen. It will certainly take time. One habit at a time.
How to master culture (hint: time)
We sat down with acclaimed author, Michael Bungay Stanier, recently and one of the things he told us (that didn’t get into our blog post) was that habits take close to 64 days to sink in. But it depends on the person, and it only works if you focus on one habit at a time. So, as you can imagine, it takes a lot of time to build a whole business culture comprised of habits.
In his popular book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presented what he called the “10,000 hours rule,” which is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. In the book, Gladwell gave examples of people like Bill Gates and The Beatles and explained how the reason they were so successful was that, when their big chances came, they had (at least) 10,000 hours of experience in their respective trades.
And even though that “rule” has had its naysayers, it’s always stuck with me. Because regardless of the amount of time it takes to become a master (or to master a habit), there’s obviously something to the notion that it takes a lot of time (and work) to get there. So, even if you’re not John Lennon or Bill Gates, you can do great things when you put the work into it. When building a business culture, with all the people and moving parts involved, it is especially worthwhile to expect that time (and, again, work) is the main ingredient.
The good news
But here’s the thing about humans. We’re all creatures of habit. And this is good news! If you hire the right people, who have good habits (or are willing to develop good habits), in a matter of time, your culture will be a well-oiled machine.
Because once it’s an employee’s instinct to uphold your company values, and once they have the desired culture habits, it’s a perpetual cycle. They’ll instill those same business habits on new hires, and they’ll do the same, and so on and so forth until your culture is everything you’ve ever wanted it to be. (I’ve seen it here at BambooHR.)
Business culture can be a profoundly simple—albeit difficult—thing to understand (and master). But to make it what you want it to be, you must be willing to put in the effort.