There seems to be this ongoing chatter about organizational culture. Not the productive dialogue type chatter, but rather what we have come to know as the proverbial white noise. Sure there are people like me who write about it, tweet about it and all that. I’m not talking about that crowd. I’m talking about organizational leaders who understand that culture is important, so they talk about it. They try to describe to others in their organization how great the culture can/should be. It is a subject that is getting endless airplay. There is only one thing missing…execution.

shocked-faceOrganizational culture is not a description, but rather an experience. You can’t just tell people what it’s like. Try to describe honey to someone who has never eaten it. How about explaining the taste of chocolate to the unfortunate soul who has yet to experience it. How about describing sex to a virgin? None of these do the real thing any justice by merely describing it. They all must be experienced in order to appreciate and fully understand them. Organizational culture is no different.

Of course discussions are necessary to decide exactly what kind of culture is best-suited for your organization. It is, however, important to then act on those decisions. Talking about culture doesn’t create it – at least not entirely. Communication does play a huge role in establishing and reinforcing culture, but through stories of experiences. It doesn’t magically happen because you won’t shut up about it. Words are words and actions are actions; and both need to support one another.

Here are a few ideas to make culture an experience and not just a talking point.

  • Understand your organization – What are common symbols used? What “rituals” do you have internally? What language do you use? Do all of these support the culture you want? There are specific drivers of culture and you need to understand what they are in your organization before you can use them to develop and maintain the culture you want.
  • Communication – Tell stories. Not just any stories, but the ones that are shining examples of the type of culture that will move your organization forward. Be detailed in your communication. State the problem, the solution, how it was developed and how it fulfills your vision and perpetuates your culture. Celebrate through these stories. Make sure you use as many channels as possible.
  • Act exemplary – You can’t create a culture that you don’t live first. Your leadership will create a context from which culture will develop. Signs, screensavers and grandiose statements that are more fluff than stuff simply won’t cut it.
  • Be emotional – Culture is a massive influence on engagement. This connection is an emotional one – more details on this relationship in this post. Decide what emotions you want your culture to elicit, then reverse engineer your cultural efforts to develop a culture that accomplishes just that…a desired emotional response. Talk doesn’t do that; an experience does.


The important thing to remember is that culture is an experiential exercise, not an intellectual one. You don’t need permission to create the culture your organization needs. The potential in your organization is waiting to be awakened by the experience you create through culture. What will you do?

  • What a refreshing perspective you are presenting William !
    I really like the sex and chocoalte metaphors to bring your messages home.
    It’s true ! Talking about something is totally different from experiencing it!
    Leaders are born in the line of fire… Build and sustain your rising stars by giving them opportunities to shine and to co-create with them beautiful gems and diamonds… What I commonly refer to as our personal and collective quest to achieve Nothing But Excellence!
    You and I share the same passion for People and Excellence and clearly it,s time to really unlock the fun in workplaces. Let the HRockstar in you just be since it’s been there wiating all this time 😉
    Oh! and btw sex and chocolate are good for the body and soul… and your performance no matter what you do and are! 😉

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Johann. Human potential isn’t beneficial if it doesn’t have an outlet, and that takes more than just talk. I appreciate your contribution!

  • Yes! Culture can’t be reduced to a coffee mug cliche. It’s about becoming appropriately human and helping an entire organization do the same. This post should be required reading for folks in our line of work.

  • Coffee mug cliche….nice. The key word you mention is “human”. Once we get the importance of that notion, many of the other obstacles tend to melt away. Thanks for your contribution Matt!

  • William – thank you for your delicious post!!! You nailed the dilemma beautifully – at some point we do have to talk about culture, but culture at its best is always a fully lived, felt, kinesthetic experience. So whatever we say about culture needs to ring with the richness of our experience of it. Dry language won’t do it. Stories and emotion and rich metaphors that stir the soul are a more promising linguistic path …

  • Agreed Achim. The conversation needs to be a segue to action, as opposed to being the action itself. Felt. Experiential. Rich. Emotional. All great descriptors. Once we realize the emotions we want our culture to elicit, we will begin to understand more of how it should be developed. Thanks for your contribution!

  • Great thoughts! I agree, talk is cheap. You have to take the necessary actions to execute this culture, and embrace people who share these same values! Thanks!

  • Talk is cheap indeed. I appreciate your contribution to this topic!