May 19, 2021

Culture Makes Us Human: 3 Lessons for Building a Vibrant, Adaptive Company Culture 

What knowledge and skills do you need to build a strong, vibrant, agile, and adaptive culture where people achieve extraordinary results for your organization? During our combined 75 years’ worth of research, teaching, consulting, and training, we have learned a few fundamental lessons about what makes a culture healthy:

Lesson 1: Success Begins and Ends With Culture

Most culture-building mistakes occur when you view culture as an add-on component, a mere sideshow to the main concerns of running a successful enterprise. Too often, strategy, finance, and operational issues occupy the front seats of the bus, with culture riding along in the back.

In our view, culture should take the wheel. Strategy, finance, operations, and their cousins do not fulfill basic human needs. Culture does. It fulfills the needs that have been hardwired into our basic biological makeups, needs as essential to our daily lives and well-being as food, air, and water. It’s no exaggeration to say that culture makes us human.  When employees feel a sense of belonging and a commitment to a shared purpose, they will bring all of their energy and creativity to their work.  As data gathered by Gallup shows, engagement drives results.

Lesson 2: Culture Satisfies Some of Our Most Important Needs

We all require deep and rewarding relationships. We all love to solve problems and reap the rewards for our groups. We all yearn for dignity and respect as we progress in life. The many different strategies people employ in service of these motivations define their cultures.

When it comes to culture, you never do it alone. In anthropological terms, it takes a tribe. Its members undergo the most profound education as they learn how to live in the tribe and contribute to its success. When leaders talk about building a strong and adaptive culture, they often forget they are not starting with a blank slate but with a rich mosaic of teams, units, groups of work buddies, and on and on, each with its own unique culture. Even if you sit in the corner office, you are only one of many culture CEOs finding ways to meet your people’s particular needs.

A culture never emerges solely from a mandate from on high. It grows out of the many tribes that inhabit every organization. To create a unified culture, you need to engage with others on their terms. Approach the task like an anthropologist exploring a new land, with a blank notebook and an open mind.

In other words, to build a productive and prosperous culture, you must understand and care about all of the people who live and work in it. That understanding starts with active, sensitive listening.  Conduct interviews with employees, guided by open-end questions like “How do you feel about your job?” and “What can be done to make it easier to do your job?” Organize virtual town-hall discussions that give participants a chance to speak their minds. Share what you’ve learned from listening and how you plan to respond. Strong cultures are based on give and take.

Lesson 3: Culture Changes

The natural world changes. Societies change. People change. Culture is not immune.

Why do some top-performing businesses with rock-solid cultures fall apart overnight? Look at your own organization: Why do terrific teams come together almost magically in one unit while disgruntled groups seem to spring out of nowhere in another?

Answer: All of the little cultures that comprise your organization’s bigger culture constantly grow, evolve, and adapt to change. The moment you think everyone is finally moving in the same direction, something shifts, forcing you to rethink and rebuild your culture all over again. Don’t wait until your culture is falling apart to invite people to share what they are feeling. Make it a regular habit, reaching out at least once a quarter to solicit feedback in open forums. Ask for input about improving your workplace.

According to Harvard Business Review, CEOs view improving their cultures as a top priority, yet most contemporary workers do not see the effects of that belief. They hear the words, but they do not take them to heart. A PwC study found less than a third of workers feel connected to their company’s purpose. Bottom line: There’s a serious disconnect between what leaders say and what their people think and feel about what they say. That gap explains a lot of the underperformance many organizations suffer today.

What can you do? You can start building a sustainable culture by seeking answers to a few questions: Does our organization have clear goals? Do employees feel inspired? What do they need to do their best work?  Take the time to listen and respond to the answers, and you will be on your way to creating a workplace that gets the most out of everyone in the organization.

Mario Moussa, Derek Newberry, and Greg Urban are the authors of The Culture Puzzle: Harnessing the Forces That Drive Your Organization’s Success.

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Mario Moussa is coauthor of "The Culture Puzzle," president of Moussa Consulting, and an affiliated faculty member in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He also teaches in the School of Professional Studies at New York University and is an educator at Duke University Corporate Education. His work has been featured on NPR and in Time, Businessweek, US News and World Report, Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, the Economist, and the Financial Times. He is the coauthor of the bestseller "The Art of Woo and Committed Teams." He received his MBA from the Wharton School and his PhD from the University of Chicago.

Derek Newberry is coauthor of "The Culture Puzzle," a strategy lead in organization and culture design at co:collective, and an affiliated faculty member in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Fortune, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Quartz, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the coauthor of "Committed Teams." He received his BA from George Washington University and PhD in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania

Greg Urban is coauthor of "The Culture Puzzle," the Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the current editor of the Journal of Business Anthropology. He has authored and edited several books, including "Metaculture" and "Corporations and Citizenship." He received his BA, MA, and PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago.