The Soil of Culture: Your True Source of Growth


Ask any farmer (that’s not already been replaced by A.I.) and they’ll tell you this one thing. The health of the soil is imperative to maximizing the yield of the crops.  The soil of any company is its culture. Just like soil, corporate culture is the key to the growth of the seed of innovation, employee engagement, inclusion, and revenue.

What is Culture?

The people are not the culture any more than a goldfish is the water.  Marketing Guru, Seth Godin describes culture as the answer to this fundamental question: “People like us, do things like this.”  The “this” is multi-faceted.  According to Edgar Schein, culture is made up of three facets: Artifacts, Espoused Values and Tacit Assumptions.

These are tangible trappings that can be seen, felt, tasted or heard.  Things like the annual charity softball event, bagel Fridays, remote working and collaborative workspaces.

Espoused Values
These are what we want to be known for both internally and externally.  Common values include dependability, accountability, teamwork, integrity, fun, courage, and customer-focused.

Tacit Assumptions
These are often the most overlooked facet of culture due it being difficult to measure.  Here we find the shared norms and beliefs that influence: how employees make decision making, conflict resolution, treatment of customers/associates/suppliers, promotions and corporate strategy.

What isn’t Culture?

Many leaders go right to the programs that have they’ve established to drive employee engagement. Such programs include volunteer time off, free food days and annual traditions.  However, culture isn’t just employee engagement. Leaders also tout work-life balance policies. Such policies include work from home, flexible schedules or even comp time. However, culture isn’t just work-life balance.

Don’t get me wrong, these things are all awesome.  In and of themselves, they are the outgrowth of an ethos or way of thinking.  Taken in context with the ethos, you have culture.

This common misconception makes sense since these are clearly visible.  It’s also because it is can be easily assessed via a survey. Looking at culture this way is like a farmer snipping off the green leaves of his carrot crop and leaving the carrot buried in the ground.  

(Read also My Fascination with Organizational Culture)

Why avoid norms?

Leaders and Human Resources professionals have stopped short of pulling their carrots of culture for many reasons.  It’s not as easy as using keystrokes to publish a survey. The soil is home to all the human dynamics that make culture messy and they’d rather not get their hands dirty.  Just as someone might avoid the doctor to avoid hearing uncomfortable truths, many leaders wish to stay clear of delving into the amorphous blob that is culture.

Remaining at the level of artifacts and espoused values allows for what’s left of culture to be assessed efficiency via a survey.  Since culture is experienced in groups it must be assessed in groups. This is because the way we do things around here is often unconscious.  We’re not aware that our behavior is following patterns and norms.  

In conclusion, most leaders often miss the mark on corporate culture really is.  Failing to focus on all three of the cultural facets. Just like soil cultures will have their fair share of bad patches that yield bad crops. And just like soil, leaders must cultivate and enrich cultures in order to produce bountiful crops that delight both employees and customers.