Company culture is a complicated phrase that simply means habits

For a long time, I couldn’t fully grasp what “company culture” really meant. I had a vague sense, but I didn’t know how to put it into words. What does it mean for a company to have a good culture? How can management shape culture when it’s up to the team members to actually implement it? Does culture come from the bottom or from the top of the org chart?

Recently, I’ve thought about organizations I’ve worked at in terms of values and habits, and it’s helped me get clarity.

Values are a combination of these things:

  • What the leadership team says is important to the organization.
  • What the leadership team actually prioritizes and encourages.

Hopefully, these two things should have a high overlap. If not, the organization has bigger problems than just culture. There’s an accountability issue to bring to light and be honest about.

When the organization’s values are consistent and clear, and it prioritizes those values correctly, team members naturally fall into habits that reinforce the values. What they do starts to reflect what’s important.

For example, if an organization wants devops to be a bigger part of the engineering team’s culture, the leadership needs to first call this out in as many ways as possible – all-hands meetings and other channels of messaging being the most obvious. Next, this needs to be encouraged in as many high-touch ways as possible: one-on-ones, sprint retrospectives, and performance reviews, as appropriate. Finally, management has to be OK with, and even encourage, devops-related tasks supplanting lower-priority work.

When the leadership team commits this hard to making devops a high-priority value, the dev team will start to make devops a habit. In fact, they will begin to encourage and help each other to learn the necessary skills, both technical and non-technical.

This framework helps me think about culture in both a top-down and bottom-up way. Culture is a shared responsibility between those who make up the majority of the team as well as the leadership team.