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March 10, 2021

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Understanding Company Culture and What Drives It

What is company culture? Is it the blood that courses through an organization's veins, or has it simply become yet another buzzword? Does it serve as a moral compass, or has it become a ploy for companies to attract employees and drum up business? The word is often tossed around with little understanding of the true meaning. Company culture is the web that holds the nucleus of a company and its people in place. It may start as the basis of an idea for a company, or it may form on its own as a company expands. It can grow stronger and evolve alongside the employees that nurture it. Culture is an organization’s personality: it cannot be faked, and it’s difficult to fully understand.

Does Company Culture Really Matter?

As you may know, we at Crowdstaffing are fans of disruptive technology. So, it should come as no surprise that this blog post by Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb captured my interest when first published. In his post, Chensky muses about where culture starts, how it fuels innovation, and whether large companies are doomed to “fuck it up.” He explains why company culture is so important:

“The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial…Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process. In organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes.”

Chensky is right. Culture is the foundation of everything a company does. But to discover how we can improve company culture (or at least avoid screwing it up), we need to know a little more about it.

The Birth of Company Culture

This whole concept of corporate culture started not so long ago, and up until very recently, it was largely unexplored. The earliest research established a core theory of how culture unifies values and goals in the workplace. A company’s credo includes thoughts on accountability and authority, fair treatment and pay, growth opportunities, and the long-term goals of the company. Within the last decade, studies have expanded upon these ideas. Company culture is not just a set of rules, but a personality that shapes and is shaped by employees. It’s what inspires people, whether employees or customers, to identify with a company. As such, it can be constantly evolving and may sometimes break off into various subcultures.

In the last decade, much research has been done into the understanding company culture in terms of the “ingredients” that comprise it. In 2013, Bernard L. Roseauer wrote the “Three Bell Curves,” a paper which examines the raw framework of company culture. In it, he expands upon the original theory. We know that culture is loosely defined as “how things are done,” but by diving in deeper, Roseauer found actionable insight - the three main factors that constitute an organization’s personality: the employees, the work, and the customers. Each of these is its own bell curve, each with its own variables. Separately, they outline strengths and weaknesses within that sector. Together, they show an overall picture of the organization’s health. The three are intertwined: a blip on the employee radar could certainly affect the work and the customers, and vice versa. The theory makes an excellent diagnostic tool: using the Three Bell Curve methodology, business leaders can identify weaknesses and forecast the impact of changes.

How Culture Evolves

So now we know what company culture is and how it’s expressed, but how about what drives it? What is it that keeps a culture going, or else grinds it to a halt? Conveniently, there are three “ingredients” here, too. According to Axialent’s Managing Director, Fran Cherny, the three drivers behind company culture are behaviors, systems, and symbols. Just as with the bell curves, the three are co-related:

  • Behaviors: how leaders behave in alignment with the values of an organization. The behaviors of leaders and key influencers in an organization play a major role in shaping how employees function.
  • Systems: the processes behind all organizational operations. These processes guide how decisions are made, how budgets are allocated, etc. Systems influence behaviors, and thus have a significant impact when changed.
  • Symbols: how company culture is conveyed, whether deliberate (branding) or subconsciously (office design). Symbols can also be abstract, such as how employees interact with each other, how workflows are designated, or how accomplishments are rewarded. Behaviors, systems, and symbols all come together to tell an organization’s story – the story of its company culture.

In the article, Cherny provides an example of how these three factors come into play when trying to make culture changes. He looked at a large tech company that was having trouble getting employees to be more collaborative and open. Upon further investigation, Cherny found that the company’s systems were convoluted and siloed. Furthermore, the compensation and bonus plans were based on individual performance, which discouraged collaboration. By changing the compensation plan (a symbol), and consolidating the company processes (a system), the desired behavioral outcome could be obtained.

Weaving Together the Threads of Company Culture

The more we study company culture, the more we understand its complexities. To say it’s “the way things are done” is an oversimplification. Culture is a living tapestry where the employees, the work, and the customers are the warp, and the behaviors, systems, and symbols are the weft. You can’t move one thread without affecting the others, whether for better or for worse. Perhaps Brian Chensky said it best:

"Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture."


Casey Enstrom
Casey Enstrom
Casey is one of the staffing industry’s household names, specializing in sales and operations leadership. He brings extensive knowledge of business development and sales strategies, predictive analytics, leadership, and human capital solutions. Prior to Crowdstaffing, Casey served as the Vice President of Technical Sales, North America, for a Fortune 1000 staffing firm.
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