Last month Merriam-Webster announced that "culture" is the 2014 word of the year based on increased year-over-year look-up activity on its website, which averages around 100 million page views each month.
Why are so many people searching the definition of the word "culture?" Don’t we know what the word means already?
Not really. Culture is something that is very real, yet intangible. We struggle to define and understand it.
In fact, culture has many shades of meaning. The sociological definition of culture, which many of us learned as students, deals with "the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time." But today, the word is often used to describe the unseen factors influencing our daily work, and references "a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)." It is this secondary definition of culture that is sparking discussion among today’s business leaders.
The problem is that even though we have a definition for workplace culture, our definition tells us nothing about whether a given culture positively affects performance, what types of cultures exist, or even how culture comes into being.
The reality is that there are different types of workplace cultures, and these cultures significantly affect the long-term health of organizations. It is critical for companies to be able to understand, define, and actively shape cultures at their organizations.
The first step in defining your workplace culture is to choose which of the three major types it resembles most: a culture of control, a culture of indifference, or a culture of connection.
In cultures of control, people with power, control, influence, and status rule over others. This culture creates an environment where people fear to make mistakes and take risks.
Cultures of indifference are predominant today. In this type of culture, people are so busy chasing money, power, and status that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop healthy, supportive relationships. This is, in essence, the culture that evolves when no one cares to actively shape the culture.
A connection culture, on the other hand, provides the right framework for long-term success. Connection culture can be defined as an organizational culture marked by shared identity, empathy, and understanding—a definition that tells us the elements required to create a great workplace culture.
Breaking the definition down further, shared identity is how the members of a group think of themselves and is based on a mix of vision, mission, values, and reputation. Shared empathy comes about when people care for others rather than treat them as means to an end. Shared understanding is enhanced when good, two-way communication gives people a voice, though not necessarily a vote, in decision-making. When these three factors are present, a bond is created that overcomes the differences that historically divided people, creating a sense of connection, community, and unity that is inclusive and energizing, and spurs productivity and innovation.
As our persistent interest in the word indicates, culture is a very real phenomenon that is too important to ignore. You won’t find the secret to an effective workplace culture in the dictionary. But you will find it by defining it yourself in your organization as an invincible bond of caring for one another.
—Michael Lee Stallard is president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership consulting and training firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.