Blog | Leadership in Culture


How do we create good culture in our workplace?

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What do you think of when you hear the word culture? Do you think of the enriching culture that you are immersed in when you visit another country? Do you think of your own culture at home, where you are conscious of appropriate things to do and to say? Or perhaps you think of corporate culture, with the mindsets and work ethic of the employees driving you to do one thing or another? Whether it’s in another country, at home, or at work, culture exists wherever there is a gathering of people with similar objectives in mind. Especially in the current age where companies are struggling to find ways to motivate their employees and make sure that they can reach their goals, culture appears to be everything. In fact, culture is claimed to be the driving force in business. The reason that good corporate culture essentially runs the business even without direct and constant supervision, since when all the members of your organization are inline with the goals and mission of the company they know what to do to ensure that the goals are met. Even though there’s all this talk about the benefits of culture and how it “drives business,” ultimately the question comes down to: How do we impart a good culture in our workplace?
The quick answer to that question is that you already have culture in your workplace, but it all starts with the leadership in the company. For the long answer, we look at real life example Tristan White whose company has thrived and even was awarded both financially and publicly for its strong culture. Tristan White, the CEO of The Physio Co, (Ranked one of Australia’s best places to work) wrote in his recent book, Culture is Everything, that culture is what makes a team member go to work everyday, not only the money or the benefits, that comes along with a good culture. Notice how “team member” was used to describe an employee rather than calling them an employee. That’s where White claims a good culture begins. It begins with those in leadership acknowledging the roles each individuals play, and establishing and following core principles that make working an enriching experience. The key takeaway from White’s book is simply that culture is not created rather it is found, and to make culture positive it is the responsibility of the leaders of the company. Conventional wisdom would dictate that culture naturally forms as people are brought into the company, and though partially true, White emphasizes that ultimately the culture is decided by the executives when they first start the company, and by using a robust recruitment process to screen those that join. By following his own advice, his company has remained as one of Australia’s best places to work for 8 years in a row. Though agreeing that culture is very important in the workplace, Berkeley-Haas Professor, Jennifer Chatman, who has completed extensive research on leadership and corporate culture, poses a more specific role that culture plays that culture is more of a leadership tool.
Dr. Jennifer Chatman, the Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, assures that the claim that culture drives business does not completely capture its effectiveness. Rather Chatman describes culture as being a leadership tool that leaders use as their strategy execution engine. To clarify what Chatman means, we can think of a company as a car, then culture would be the engine, and the executives in the company the driver (who comes up with the strategy). In other words, because culture is set by those that lead, it is important for leaders to understand that it comes down to them to be effective bringers of change. With each new hire, and with the new interactions that appear in the work environment the reactions and the ways that the executive leaders make decisions affect the culture. Due to this continuous change and growth in the workplace, Chatman says that it is normal to see competing objectives within the organizations, thus there are 3 necessary criteria for culture that are vital for to the organization.
First, culture needs to be strategically aligned. As mentioned earlier, culture is the strategy execution engine, so it is extremely important to make sure that rather than just developing a culture of positivity there needs to be a reason and a background strategy to the culture. Chatman says that what culture really defines is how to “prioritize behaviors” in order achieve the strategic objectives. Since culture down to its base is just collective behaviors of people in an environment, making sure that those behaviors continue to promote success to the objectives is key. Second, culture has to be strong. Both Chatman and White will agree that culture needs to be strong, but for different reasons. For White, he sees culture as being fragile and that one toxic person can bring the hard work of building culture down to the ground, so strengthening culture consists of being able to react and remove those toxic to the culture. On the other hand, Chatman sees strong culture as being prideful and proactive with the values of the organization further than just being “printed on a coffee mug,” but internalized to the point where the members of the organization will act when necessary. Third, but most importantly, culture has to adaptable. There is no question that the world is changing, as I wrote in a different blog, “In the current digital age, why is it important to innovate?”, technology is moving and change is happening fast, and that does not only apply to gadgets and capital. Culture needs to be able to adapt to the change within a company’s demographic as well as making split second changes in innovative strategies. Dr. Chatman even states that the “real differentiator between organizations with innovative cultures and those without them” is the ability “to move on those [creative] ideas at a rapid enough pace. With these three requirements, Chatman believes leaders can effectively utilize culture as a strategic tool.
Culture is a powerful thing, whether that be driving business in Tristan White’s case, or as an impactful leadership tool in Dr. Jennifer Chatman’s, but the one thing they can both agree on is that it always comes down to the leaders, the CEOs, the CPOs, management, etc to lead both the culture and its members. 
Culture is inevitable in organizations. Any time you get people meeting together on a regular basis where important things are at stake like their job and their reputation and their pay norms will form. Really leaders don’t have a choice about whether a culture will form or it won’t form. What they do have a choice about is whether that culture is one that will enable them to achieve their strategic objectives, or a worst case scenario, an unmanaged culture which constrains them from being able to do so. - Dr. Jennifer Chatman, a Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management at the Haas School of Business
White, T. (2017). Culture Is Everything: The Story and System of a Start-up That Became Australias Best Place to Work. Advantage Media Group.
Written by: Jorrel Sto Tomas
UC Berkeley Executive Education Sales & Marketing Intern
UC Berkeley undergraduate student