To close 2014, Merriam-Webster, of dictionary fame, named ‘culture’ as the word of the year. In fact, over 100 million searches per month contained the word ‘culture’.
Looking at past Word of the Year winners you get an encapsulated, one-word overview of that given year based on that word and its brief definition:
- 2010: Austerity, defined as "enforced or extreme economy."
- 2011: Pragmatic, meaning "practical as opposed to idealistic."
- 2012: Two words, Socialism and Capitalism, shared the top spot due to discussion around the presidential election.
- 2013: Selfie, unfortunately, we all know what that is.
- 2014: Culture, referring to “company culture” or “celebrity culture.”
Why culture was THE word of 2014
So why now? Why has it taken this long for a word we hear and say so often to become significant and popular? By the end of 2014, just about everyone has had an experience with a company’s culture that they can fully and finally articulate.
Many organizations like
to identify themselves as having one kind of culture – a sales culture, a
safety culture, a customer service culture - but the reality is that culture is
never just one thing. It is an amalgamation of cultural attributes that
contribute to an overall experience.
Take for example, an organization that says “we have a learning culture.”
The statement leads you to believe that they are focused on continual learning, educational reimbursement, training and development. And maybe they are in the fat days when their bottom line is in the black. But in reality many companies who say this often times cut training as something that’s too expensive or not critical to business success as soon as the budget tightens.
If this is the demonstrated behavior, then how can organizations really stand behind the statement that they are a “learning culture?” They aren’t.
They may tout this statement on their career sites or marketing materials but when the lived experience of employees does not match the mantra, it becomes an incongruence that is easily uncovered.
Corporate culture is authentic when it’s weaved into an organization’s guiding principles
When an organization puts a focus on a culture attributes, they can weave that attribute into the company’s guiding principles. These principles are what people know your organization for.
If the company stays true and congruent to the attributes, employees will live by it. It’ll help get you through difficult times. You’ll base hiring and firing decisions on these principles. It’ll help get all employees working on the same company mission. In some sense, it’s the glue that can keep the company together. What happens when there is an incongruence in a stated cultural attribute or lived experience? More often than not, employees lose faith in the organization and they become disengaged and even resentful. No one likes to be lied to and an incongruence can be interpreted as a lie, a mistruth that feeds directly into mistrust.
Remember back to the darkest day in recent United States history – September 11, 2001. Airplanes were used as weapons against the United States and air traffic was grounded around the world. People were horrified, terrified and afraid to fly. Within hours of the attacks, Southwest Airlines came out with an announcement – black background with white font that simply said they would offer full refunds, no questions asked. They knew immediately that this was the only thing they could do. The other airlines did not react with Southwest’s swiftness. They didn’t know if they should follow suit – they could lose millions. In the end, they did follow Southwest’s lead but not until days later. Why? This decision wasn’t based on their culture. It was based on following the crowd, following the leader in their industry that stepped up – the low cost carrier that values its customers more than its fourth quarter profits and trades under the name LUV.
Your company’s culture – true, lived culture is the one that rears its head during the bad times, not the good.
It is experiences like this, that occasionally play out on the global stage that send a strong message, a cultural message and that can sometimes start a movement. Did September 11th 2001 set the stage for culture to be named the word of the year in 2014? Maybe not, but it sure did leave an impression of how organizations responded on that day and the years to follow. And those actions, those lived experiences definitely contributed to people getting it, the whole company culture thing.