Chapter 8: Our Culture

This is part of the Thomas Nelson Way Series, an in-house curriculum for new employees. It is intended to be a “quick reference” for the things that are important to us. You can click here to see the introduction to the series and our thinking behind it.

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.
— Margaret Mead

Corporate culture is not something we usually think about. It’s kind of like water to a fish or air to a bird. It’s simply the environment we live in.

Business People Woo-Hooing - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #309942

Photo courtesy of ©

Nevertheless, I believe culture is one of the most important factors driving operating results and influencing employee satisfaction. Unhealthy cultures produce bad results and unhappy employees. Healthy cultures produce good results and happy employees.

Webster’s defines culture as

… the predominating attitudes, values, and behaviors that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.

In this sense, culture is inescapable. You can’t not have a culture. Every company has one. It is either healthy or unhealthy—or perhaps somewhere in between.

Maybe you’ve had the unfortunate experience of working in an unhealthy culture. I certainly have. What does it look like? Based on my experience, there are at least ten attributes. Unhealthy cultures:

  • Are hierarchical in nature and emphasis
  • Are opaque in terms of communication
  • Use fear and conformity to “motivate” employees
  • Focus on short-term results
  • Are always looking for the next “home run”
  • Promote internal competition—usually with disastrous consequences
  • Are undisciplined with regard to policies, processes, and procedures
  • Reward people for who they know rather than how they perform
  • Take people for granted, neither recognizing them as individuals nor celebrating their accomplishments
  • Are monolithic and homogeneous with regard to gender, ethnicity, and even geography

Contrary to this, we want to develop a culture that is characterized by the following ten attributes:

  1. Collegial. This is in contrast to the kind of hierarchical organizations that most of us have experienced. In these kinds of structures, information flows from the top down. Decisions are made by management. The opinions of mere workers are rarely considered. Instead, we want a culture where everyone is valued as an individual. Everyone has a seat at the table. We are a company of peers. We need each other and actively solicit one another’s input—up and down the organization—before making major decisions.
  2. Transparent. Some companies are opaque. Only the people at the very top know what is going on. Information is not widely shared—especially financial information. Everything is kept under lock and key. As a result, rumors run rampant. In the absence of accurate information, people get creative. Instead, we want a culture where information is rapidly passed up and down the chain-of-command. People get news from their supervisor first, especially bad news. We want a culture where people know how the company is doing financially. We want everyone to familiar with the company’s business definition and strategy, purpose, values, and vision for the future.
  3. Safe for Dissent. In many companies, people are afraid to speak their mind. They conform to the status quo because of either real or perceived threats. They go-along to get-along. But this, too, is unhealthy. Instead, we want a culture where people are not only free, but openly encouraged to share contrary opinions. As someone once said, “If both of us have the same viewpoint, then one of us is unnecessary to the relationship.” We need everyone’s best thinking. We want to encourage people to open up, speak out, and even disagree. We want them to feel safe doing so. In fact, we want them to feel an obligation to do so.
  4. Perspective. This is in contrast to organizations who are exclusively focused on short-term results. This problem certainly plagues many public companies, but it can affect any company. When everything is focused on producing results for this month, this quarter, or even this year, things can start veering off track. A company cannot be healthy without considering a long-term perspective. This doesn’t mean that the short-term is not important. It is. Without the short-term, there is no long-term. But it can’t be a company’s exclusive focus. We really need both. We need to know where we are headed (the vision), how we are going to get there (the strategy), and stay on the road in front of us (execution).
  5. Incremental. Many companies are forever swinging for the fences. They get caught in the trap of always needing a home run to bail them out of the current crisis. They take inordinate risks. Like the proverbial hare, they zip ahead for a season, but eventually lose the race to the tortoise. Instead, we want to build a culture of “singles and doubles.” We want people to take risks, but not excessive, bet-the-farm ones. We want them to see the incredible value of making incremental gains and improvements over a long period of time.
  6. Collaborative. External competition can motivate an organization to produce incredible results. Internal competition can create a dysfunctional environment that can be devastating to results. Contrary to this, we want a culture where everyone is part of the same team, rowing in the same direction. We want a company full of people who are willing to serve one another—people who are willing to help others get ahead without always asking, “What’s in it for me?” We want this to flow from a deep-seated conviction that we can accomplish more together than we can on our own.
  7. Disciplined. Many companies are undisciplined. They don’t have written policies. They haven’t defined their basic business processes. They don’t have standard operating procedures. As a result, the environment is chaotic, draining, and frustrating to work in. They seem to be always “reinventing the wheel” or repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Instead, we want a culture where we pool our shared experiences and articulate “best practices.” We want to define what constitutes success and then hold one another accountable for staying focused and disciplined.
  8. Performance-Based. In some companies, you get ahead by who you know. It’s the “good ol’ boy” network. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” In other companies you get ahead by conforming to superficial cultural norms, like how you dress, where you went to school, what kind of car you drive, where you live, etc. Instead, we want a culture where it’s all about performance. We don’t care about any of this other stuff. You get ahead by doing your job and delivering the results. If you can do that—consistently—you can expect to move forward in your career.
  9. Recognition. Some companies take their employees for granted. The only time employees get singled out is when they make a mistake. If they accomplish something significant, their boss takes the credit. Instead, we want a culture where people are routinely recognized for their accomplishments. We want to speak up, giving them the recognition they deserve. We want to celebrate their successes, formally and informally, one-on-one and publicly. In short, we want to push the credit down and the blame up.
  10. Diversity. Some companies are monolithic or homogenous. Everyone looks the same, talks the same, even thinks the same. They might as well be clones of one another. This does not produce the kind of innovative solutions and results we want. Instead, we want to populate our company with diversity. We don’t just want men in management; we want women, too. We don’t just want middle-class white employees; we want all ethnicities represented: black, white, hispanic, asian, etc. We want married people, single people, young people, old people, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Why? Because this is reflective of the market we are trying to serve.

Companies are generally not intentional about shaping or changing culture. At Thomas Nelson, we want it to be a priority. That begins by understanding what we are trying to create, committing to one another to manifest these attributes, and then calling out unhealthy behavior when we see it.