What is Culture?

I recently heard Jim Whalley (CEO, Nova Aerospace) give a keynote address at an awards ceremony and I was struck by some of his opening lines: “In real estate, it is about location, location, location.  In business, it is about culture, culture, culture.”  

So what is culture exactly?

Herb Kelleher (Chairman, Southwest Airlines) says that, “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.”

However, Ravasi and Schultz wrote in 2006 that organisational or corporate culture is a set of shared assumptions that guide what happens in organisations by defining appropriate behaviour for various situations (see Ravasi, D., Schultz, M. (2006). Responding to organisational identity threats: Exploring the role of organisational culture. Academy of Management Journal, 49 (3), 433-458).

Professor Kim Cameron in his 2013 book titled, “Practicing Positive Leadership” states that when we speak of culture, we are really talking about the taken-for-granted values, expectations, collective memories, and implicit meanings that define an organisation’s core identity and behaviour. “Culture reflects the prevailing ideology that people carry inside their heads” (Page 20).

The culture provides unwritten and typically unspoken guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. Culture is largely invisible until it is challenged or contradicted.

Cameron gives an analogy suggesting that each morning, we do not wake up for example, making a conscious choice to speak our dominant language which in his case is English. We just do it. However, we are not fully aware that we speak a certain language until we meet someone else who does not which calls our attention to what we take for granted. Hence, because culture is undetectable most of the time, it is also difficult to manage or change.

Tony Hsieh: American internet entrepreneur & CEO of the online shoe & clothing store Zappos.com

Tony Hsieh: American internet entrepreneur & CEO of the online shoe & clothing store Zappos.com

In summary, organisational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. In addition, culture may affect how much employees identify with a company or business (see Schrodt, P. (2002). The relationship between organisational identification and organisational culture: Employee perceptions of culture and identification in a retail sales organisation. Communications Studies, 53, 189-202).

According to Tony Hsieh, “Your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin. Your culture is your brand.”

Incidentally, organisational culture is unique and distinctive for every organisation or company and is one of the hardest things to change.

In essence though, organisational or corporate culture is all about the values and practices shared by the group. It’s about “the way we do things around here.”

What is a Positive Culture?

The Global Human Capital Trends survey conducted by the Deloitte group in 2015 examined 3,300 businesses across 106 countries and found that the No.1 issue globally was “Culture and Engagement” (in the 2016 survey it was No. 3; in the 2017 survey it was No. 4).

“Organisations are recognising the need to focus on culture and dramatically improve employee engagement as they face a looming crisis in engagement and retention” (2016 Report, Page 3). In the 2017 report, it was stated, “Culture and engagement are vital parts of the employee experience, and leading organizations are broadening their focus to include a person’s first contact with a potential employer through retirement and beyond”  (Page 7).

Because companies and businesses are now “naked”, meaning that social media and internet access is now exposing exactly what is going on inside all these places, culture is becoming much more exposed and relevant. It has always been relevant, but it’s just that now everyone can see it, not just those who happen to be working inside it.

Bullying & harassment at work creates a toxic environment

Bullying & harassment at work creates a toxic environment

Of course this means that the leadership hierarchy are suddenly interested in culture too. It’s just not their products or services that are exposed to public scrutiny, it is now also their culture.

We talk about a positive culture, but what is it exactly?

Well, we all certainly know what it’s NOT simply because we’ve either heard about it it, or worse still, painfully experienced it. Typically, there are individuals whose egos run rampant (and they are often the leaders) and they are often self-centred or are authoritarian or dictatorial and who often engage in sarcasm, put-downs, criticisms and who are demanding, unreasonable, blunt or rude.

Office politics and abusive communication creates a negative culture

Office politics and abusive communication creates a negative culture

If they are not openly abrupt, then perhaps they are more sinister engaging in laying blame, being highly manipulative, being inconsistent, creating cliches, playing favourites, engaging in back-stabbing, and then probably taking all the credit for any good work conducted.

Consequently, the individuals around them survive by forming cliches, engaging in gossip, innuendo and may, in fact, get on-side with the bully or ego to form an alliance of sorts in order to prevent themselves being knifed or ostracised.

The general atmosphere is tense, negative, oppressive and destructive. Productivity falls and morale is poor indeed and individuals staff members are only concerned about watching their back, keeping their heads down and just trying to survive. How on earth business actually gets done is a mystery.

Positivism is at the core of a great culture

Positivism is at the core of a great culture

On the other hand, a positive culture is one where the leadership is generally open, genuine and transparent where the intent is to be supportive and nurturing to allow individuals to feel free to make comment and have discussions where contributions are welcomed and professional and personal development is encouraged. It’s a setting where everyone’s opinion counts. A place where people can express their thoughts and feelings without fear of criticism or recrimination. It’s a culture where people are encouraged to grow and develop and be their best. It’s a culture where strengths and talents are recognised and people play to their strengths for their own benefit as well as to the benefit of the company or organisation. It’s a culture that also welcomes feedback.

Overall, it’s an environment built on TRUST.

A positive culture is one that tends to be flexible to change and therefore adapts to meet the needs of its members in a dynamic and constantly changing world. With the combined energy of all its members, a positive culture can actively pursue the challenges of the future as well as make improved profit and increase productivity.

What is a Coaching Culture?

More and more organisations have recognised the value of not just building a sound culture, but of building a culture of coaching that offers employees at all levels (not just executives and managers), the opportunity to grow their skills, and hence their value, and reach their professional goals as a way of improving themselves as well as the business.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 6.26.38 pmAccording to Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries in his book “The Hedgehog Effect” (2011),  if your organisation can answer “yes” to the following four questions, it is recognised that your organisation, company or business is well on the way to having a coaching culture:

  • relationships of interpersonal trust, self disclosure, and openness
  • focus on self-awareness and personal development (prepared to assess their strengths and weaknesses)
  • a preparedness to have courageous conversations
  • a willingness to give clear and constructive feedback

Furthermore, the International Coach Federation (ICF) –  in conjunction with the Human Capital Institute –  created a composite index highlighting the critical success factors that were necessary to develop an environment of effective coaching. That composite index consisted of the following six criteria:

  •  strongly agree /  agree that their organisation has a strong coaching cultureScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 6.27.35 pm
  •  strongly agree /  agree that employees value coaching
  •  strongly agree /  agree that senior executives value coaching
  •  coaching is a fixture in the organisation with a dedicated line item in the budget
  •  managers /  leaders (and/or internal coach practitioners) spend above-average time on weekly coaching activities
  •  managers /  leaders (and/or internal coach practitioners) received accredited coach training

In short, the ICF research found that organisations with a strong coaching culture shared a number of attributes including:

  •  both senior executives and employees value coaching
  •  coaching is a fixture in the organisation with a dedicated line item appearing in the budget
  •  managers and leaders using coaching skills and/or internal coach practitioners spend above-average time on weekly coaching activities
  •  managers receive accredited coach training

There is a definite sense therefore, in which a coaching culture provides the stability and framework for all interactions within the organisation. It serves as a mechanism that defines what’s acceptable in behaviour (what we do or say) as well as the kind of activities that reinforce the values of the organisation. Such a culture will have the kind of environment that includes continuous learning, the ready exchange of knowledge and information, peer coaching, and self-development, all of which are actively encouraged and facilitated at all levels.

This sort of organisation typically has a strong corporate identity; their employees are committed to and proud of the company or business. They all have a strong sense of ownership and being part of the organisation. All individuals within the organisation understand the goals of the company or business and importantly, understand their personal contribution that is needed in order to achieve the company goals and direction. They have all learned to value feedback and use it efficiently and effectively; they build high-performance teams with strong motivation and a love of learning. They know the value of courageous or crucial conversations; in other words, they do not put things off all, hope that problems will simply go away, or let difficult issues fester.

What are the Benefits of a Coaching Culture?

It’s important for employers to understand why a culture of coaching is so vital to a company’s success. Kets de Vries’ (2011) research indicated that companies and businesses that have indeed, developed a coaching culture report the following:

  •  significantly reduced staff turnovershutterstock_150064880
  •  increased productivity
  •  greater happiness and satisfaction at work

He states that in such companies, the individuals “benefit from more open communication, a more compassionate attitude, less stress, more interest in their talent development, and a greater sense of well-being” (p. 88).

He goes on to say that communication skills such as listening, enquiry, and exploration or drilling down are ingrained within the organisation’s culture.  A coaching culture also contributes to a sense of mutual ownership, better networking, more effective leadership practices, increased commitment, all of which creates better results across the whole organisation.  In organisations and businesses with a coaching culture, people are continually discovering how they can create their own reality, perhaps reinvent themselves, and how they can change the organisation.

The global survey with 545 individuals (but mainly HR) conducted by the ICF in 2014 (“Building a Coaching Culture”) across a range of industries concluded the following:

  • 65% of individuals from organisations with strong coaching cultures, rate themselves as being “highly engaged,” compared to 52% from organisations without strong coaching cultures
  •  In terms of financial impact, 60% of individuals from organisations with strong coaching cultures, report their 2013 revenue to be above their peer group, compared to 41% from all other companies

In other words,  coaching is more than just a way to increase employees’ skills and competencies, it can have a long-lasting systemic impact on an organisation’s ability to retain talent as well as a positive impact on its financial sustainability.

What are the Barriers to Implementing a Coaching Culture?

Although companies often give lip service to wanting to implement a strong coaching culture, the reality is that certain factors tend to work against such a culture being introduced. These factors include:

  •  a lack of time
  •  the limited ability to measure the ROI of coaching
  •  lack of funding
  •  tying coaching back to the business strategy
  • compensation not being tied to coaching for managers
  •  lack of accountability

A Word of Caution



However, it is also important to recognise that a coaching culture alone is not enough to drive change, improve performance, increase job satisfaction or lift the level of commitment in an organisation.

As Peter Drucker so aptly put it: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Indeed, a coaching culture needs to be used in conjunction with a viable overall business strategy.

Coaching should always be part of the process of simply making work more effective and productive. In other words, coaching is not simply another item on the to-do list for HR; it should be seen as a way of reducing each individual’s workload, professionally and personally developing them as individuals, and as a way of allowing them to become more efficient and effective.

A coaching culture therefore along with with a sound business strategy allows the duality of these two facets to drive growth and profit. The leadership in any company or business therefore needs to see that coaching is both a support and a solution; not just the latest fad in human resources or management.

Coaching Culture Creates a Competitive Advantage

The question is sometimes asked as to whether creating a coaching culture might allow a business or company to be different from their competitors.

No doubt, given the above, the answer would seem to be a definite “Yes.”

However, the leadership team in any organisation will need to ensure that the members of their company or business have what it takes to see the implementation of such a coaching culture and be resilient enough to hang in there during the change process.

Of course, introducing a coaching culture would normally require a 2 to 5 year change process (as it is with any kind of change within an organisation), but it would be particularly helpful if prior to the coaching culture being introduced, that staff, generally speaking, have had some initial introduction and training in basic skills like listening, effective communication, and emotional intelligence. These kinds of training courses (if sustained over time and not just here today and gone tomorrow) provide a very sound foundation for the implementation of a serious coaching culture.

In summary, leadership coaching and creating a coaching culture can help executives create tipping points to create an environment where individuals are more successful at managing their day-to-day responsibilities, meeting their goals, recognising when they find themselves at a crossroads, creating a fulfilling life, and allowing the business to meet its goals, grow and make profit.


Contact Dr Cross at the Institute for Leadership Coaching