Has "Culture" become the Next Meaningless Buzzword?

Updated: May 14, 2018



If you're an organizational leader and words like circle back, deep-dive, take it off-line, and game-changer are staples in your vocabulary, there are probably more than a few employees rolling their eyes on a daily basis. This clip does a great job of summarizing most of the most annoying buzzwords in less than three minutes.



If company culture is another phrase you use or hear frequently in your organization, then keep reading if you want to make it more than a buzzword.


In 2015, company culture was among the top content drivers for Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur. Last year, it morphed into phrases like “cultural ecosystem” and “cultural fit.” Today, a Google search on company culture will produce more than 52 million hits. Everyone, it seems, is looking for the secret sauce to a happier, healthier, more engaged workplace.


According to the Business Dictionary, the simple definition of company culture is “the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.” A few of the most common words used to describe company culture are forward-thinking, dynamic, innovative, agile, challenging, and transparent. 


And yet, more than 70% of U.S. employees are disengaged. 


If organizations are truly prioritizing the improvement of their cultures, why aren't more employees buying into the hype? Culture is more than all-you-can-eat cereal bars, ping pong tables, and Frisbee Fridays. It isn’t what is written down in the employee handbook or posted on the wall in the break room. Culture is not what people say about your company; it’s not even how people feel about your company. It’s how they feel about their work and the people with whom they do it with.

“Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about new ideas and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day and culture is the guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is most of the time.” - Anne Morris, HBR

If you really want to make your culture more than just a buzzword, consider thinking about it in the context of five surprisingly simple and common sense constructs:


Purpose: An organization cannot prescribe a purpose for employees; employees have to feel it. People have to feel that what they do matters, and that their individual and collective contributions move the company forward.


Engagement: Engagement is how equipped, motivated and empowered employees are to fulfill their purpose. If employees feel that what they do matters and that it contributes to the success of the organization, they will work toward the common goal as a valued member of the tribe.

The disengaged will stay for what they can get from the company. The engaged will stay for what they can contribute.

Trust: People will not invest themselves in a company they do not trust. Communication is the foundation of trust. Without open and honest communication set by example from the top, employees will fill in the blanks themselves – often incorrectly or incompletely – and trust falls apart as rumors and misinformation take over.


Reciprocal teaching and learning: Not only giving every member of the team opportunities to both teach and learn but also establishing the expectation is critical to a healthy company culture. Nurturing a learning environment requires a shift from the traditional top-down model of mentorship to one that inspires all employees to participate in collaborative learning experiences. Building a learning community requires every member of the organization to contribute and grow from the collective intellectual capacity.


Model the emotions you want to cultivate: Every organization has an emotional culture. People “catch” feelings from others through behavioral mimicry and changes in brain function. It’s called emotional contagion and it’s backed by a wealth of neuroscience. If you collaborate with others with a positive, optimistic attitude, you will actually change the chemistry of their brains in a positive way. Likewise, if you exude stress, frustration, or pessimism, those around you will catch those negative emotions. Depending upon the level of intensity, both positive and negative emotions can be sticky enough to be passed along to the next interaction. Each of us has the power to cultivate specific emotions that impact the culture of the organization.


“Challenge yourself every day to be the culture you want to see.” -Duy Duong

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