There is a so much discussion right now about culture – mostly in the context of us versus them, old versus new, and progress versus protection. Taking the temperature of “the culture” is the current media hook to foment discourse (and dis-ease) about the massive social shifts that have marked the new millennium.

But what is culture? Why does it matter so much to us? Can we intentionally affect it? Bringing insight to these questions is the heart of New Legends. When I joined Leb Tannenbaum and the group of creative professionals that make up New Legends, it was because I am a chronic optimist. I really believe that we can leave the world a little better for future generations. The more I learn about the ability to create a culture by design rather than default the more excited I become.

Here are a few of the things that have crystallized for me over the past year of working with Leb at the intersection of culture and strategy:

Culture is

  • Knowable;
  • The combination of all things accepted and rewarded;
  • Those things that are not accepted or rewarded;
  • The things that make a place unique;
  • Often unspoken, but always known.

As Dan Denison, creator of the Denison Culture Survey would say, “culture is how things are done around here.”

The thing is that generally, on both a macro and micro level, we are unaware of how much we are responding to culture. It takes intent, desire, and awareness to recognize (and question) the beliefs and assumptions that are driving the everyday norms and behaviors—of an organization or a society. Asked to explain their culture, many people describe traditions, myths, or artifacts that represent something important in their culture. They tell you a story about how they got to where they are.

And this brings me to the main point of this blog. Culture lives in the conversation.

We love interventions such as the Dension Culture Survey to “daylight” useful data concerning the behaviors, rewards, beliefs, and unspoken rewards (or punishments) at work in an organization. For me though, the most important instrument we bring is our ears—and more specifically our ability to really listen.

We listen to the way that people talk to each other. The way they talk about the organization. The things they say as well as the things they don’t say when there is conflict. The stories that come up over and over when something is challenging. The amount of genuine acknowledgment that flows when leaders are talking to each other or their employees, and maybe most importantly, the words that they use to create safety, openness, and honesty when things are rough.

When the culture is good, and it is in the conversation, you hear the organization allowing difficult discussion without fear or intimidation. You hear leaders talking about the things that employees and their peers are doing that are making a meaningful difference. You hear leaders bringing the organization back to focus and, firmly, but gently doing course corrections when needed. You hear and see the celebration. You hear and see and ultimately feel, joy and hope.

If you have these great conversations happening often and without artifice, and you haven’t consciously focused on culture, congratulations—you are on the right course. Keeping that course as you grow your company, merge or acquire new companies (with their own culture and norms) or take on major organizational changes will take some attention. Getting a culture survey now is a great place to start. It will help you know where you are strong, and celebrate., Know where you might be at risk and get more intentional about the future of your culture.

On the other hand, if the conversations in the hall, in the break room or boardroom are less than optimistic, positive, and affirming—you probably have some real work to do. But the good news is that you can have a culture by design rather than default.

Start by really hearing the conversation where the culture is hiding. Then get intentional.