What is This “Culture” Thing, Anyway? (And What Does it Mean for Small Businesses?)

What is this 'culture' thing anyway? And what does it mean for small businesses? ybkbs small b business news and features
What is this 'culture' thing anyway? And what does it mean for small businesses?

Chances are, if you follow business news at all (and we assume you do if you’re reading this platform!) you will have heard a lot about Brewdog in the last couple of weeks. 

Without rehashing the whole situation, here’s an executive summary: dozens of former employees signed an open letter accusing the craft beer firm and its co-founder James Watt of fostering a “culture of fear.” Ex-staff members claim they were bullied, treated like objects, and that the company’s culture was “toxic.” You can read more in this excellent piece by Kalyeena Makortoff and Rob Davies for The Guardian. 

But following this sage got me thinking: what is this “culture” thing we hear so much about, why does it matter, and how does it pertain to small business owners? 

What is Company Culture and Why Does It Matter?

The Balance Careers offers this definition: Company culture refers to the attitudes and behaviors of a company and its employees. It is evident in the way an organization’s people interact with each other, the values they hold, and the decisions they make. 

Emily Mei Carter is a Human Experience Architect, working with SMEs and solopreneurs. She has processed thousands of workplace culture surveys in the course of her work and conducted hundreds of face to face interviews. She says, “when most people think of culture, they think of ‘celebrity’ examples like hot tech companies offering beanbags and pizza in the office and creating a fun and youthful environment. But it actually means the unspoken rules for ‘how we do things around here.’” 

Emily explains that before the idea of culture was picked up by HR teams as a productivity and branding objective, it was managed primarily by workplace safety teams as a way to ensure safe and injury-free working practices. But in recent years, it has come to be a part of how companies “sell” themselves to customers, prospective employees, and the general public. 

Michael Alexis, the CEO of Teambuilding.com, says, “I see work culture as the set of norms that the majority of members of an organisation follow. So for example, casual Fridays can be part of work culture, and so can direct communication, transparency, communication, and more.” 

A company culture can be something that is created deliberately, or it can emerge organically as the business grows and expands. In reality, most strong company cultures are the result of both deliberate cultivation and organic growth. 

Illustration for company culture
What is Your Culture?

Company culture isn’t just relevant to large corporations. It is also relevant for small businesses. Do you have at least one other person working with or for you? If so, company culture matters for your business. 

(We could even argue that a sole trader or individual freelancer can have a “business culture,” because it pertains not just to how employees are treated but to how customers and the general public view the business.) 

How would you define your company culture? Try to sum it up in five words or less. Common words used to describe company cultures include terms like casual, formal, collaborative, warm, risk-taking, and honest. On the more negative side, the word toxic is used a lot, but more descriptive words to describe a poor company culture might include boring, unethical, stressful, or unsupportive

Netflix defines its culture with a simple three-word slogan: “people over process.” Digital marketing giant Hubspot has an entire Culture Code, featuring philosophies such as “influence should be independent of hierarchy” and “we’d rather be failing frequently than never trying.” Michael tells me that Teambuilding’s culture values include “operate at level 10 integrity” and “feedback first.” What’s the equivalent for your business? 

As you try to identify your current company culture, be brutally honest with yourself. As the bosses at Brewdog discovered to their detriment, you can’t magic a good culture into being just by pretending it exists. Gustavo Razzetti at Fearless Culture writes:

“Today, organizations are being scrutinized and becoming more transparent – most by accident, some by design.  Unhappy customers or disgruntled employees can turn your story upside down. And, if you pretend to be perfect and your culture is not, it will spread like wildfire on social media.”

If something is off with your culture, it’s better to acknowledge that so you can improve upon it. 

Can Culture Be Changed?

What if the culture at your business isn’t what you’d like it to be? Don’t panic—company culture can be changed. It won’t happen overnight but, with consistent work and buy-in from everyone in your team, you can start to shift your company culture in a more positive direction. 

To change your culture, start with your values. What is your business all about and what does it believe in? Next, create concrete and specific plans for how you and your employees will live up to those values. The clearer you can be, the better. 

Michael says, “Our values can be heuristics for decision making. For example, everyone at Teambuilding knows that if you are faced with a decision, to always choose the highest integrity option.” He explains that values make it clear what you prioritize and stand for.

Business core values illustration
What Do You Want Your Culture to Be?

Before you can build a strong business culture, you need to have a good idea of what you want that culture to look like. Write down five to ten words that describe how you’d most like your company to be perceived by employees, customers, and other stakeholders. 

Remember that your workplace culture isn’t just about you. Ask your employees and coworkers what they want, too. While culture change must come from the top, you’ll never succeed if your team hasn’t bought into what you are trying to create. 

If you have a small team, conduct a survey or series of informal discussions to share ideas on ways to live up to your values and improve your company culture. If you have a much larger workforce, consider recruiting a small “culture committee” with representatives from each of your sub-teams. These people can solicit feedback from their own teams and feed it back. 

Walk the Walk

Often, it’s the companies that talk up their culture that end up being the most toxic when you scratch the surface. Creating a positive culture is an ongoing process, not a one-time project. The most important piece of advice I can give you is this: talking the talk isn’t enough. You have to walk the walk. And as the boss or business owner, this means leading by example. 

You can’t claim to have a “family friendly” culture if you roll your eyes when your employee needs to take time off to care for a sick child. You can’t claim to value diversity if everyone you hire is white, under 35, and from a middle class background. And so on. 

If you want a truly positive culture, you have to be willing to put the work in to actually make it happen. This work continues day after day, week after week, and year after year. And when you’ve taken enough small steps, you’ll turn around one day and realise you’ve actually created the culture you want. 

Be Aware of Hiring for “Culture Fit” 

When you hire employees, you’ll likely take many factors into account: experience, skills, education, personality, and—yes—culture fit. It’s a good idea to hire people who are on board with your values and culture aims. However, hiring for culture fit first can inadvertently result in a homogenous workforce that is lacking in diversity and fresh perspectives. 

Emily says, “You can choose a direction for culture but you can’t truly control it because it’s built by everyone.” She advises hiring for alignment with your core values and brand and then allowing the culture to build itself in the right direction.

What Does Culture Mean to You?

How does culture play out at your business? We’d love to know what it means to you, how you’ve cultivated it, and how you live it every day. Do you have a success story about changing a negative business culture? If so, we’d love to hear from you and share your story with our readers.

Do you have a story?

Do you have a small business success story from the COVID-19 era? Drop us a line if so – we’d love to talk to you.

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What is this 'culture' thing anyway? And what does it mean for small businesses? ybkbs small b business news and features
   

What is This “Culture” Thing, Anyway? (And What Does it Mean for Small Businesses?)

Chances are, if you follow business news at all (and we assume you do if you’re reading this platform!) you will have heard a lot about Brewdog in the last couple of weeks. 

Without rehashing the whole situation, here’s an executive summary: dozens of former employees signed an open letter accusing the craft beer firm and its co-founder James Watt of fostering a “culture of fear.” Ex-staff members claim they were bullied, treated like objects, and that the company’s culture was “toxic.” You can read more in this excellent piece by Kalyeena Makortoff and Rob Davies for The Guardian.  But following this sage got me thinking: what is this “culture” thing we hear so much about, why does it matter, and how does it pertain to small business owners? 

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Jess Amy Dixon is a freelance journalist, writer, editor, and social media manager based in the East Midlands. She helps clients grow their businesses via the written word, whether that’s through marketing copy, blog content, or social media posts. She’s also working on her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, and has won prizes for short fiction.