The 7 Pillars of Company Culture

Defined as ‘the shared sense of identity among a single group of people’, company culture has been a hot business topic for at least two decades. But in today’s employee-centric workforce, it matters more now than ever before.

Need proof? A recent Deloitte study revealed that a whopping 87% of organizations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges.

Those numbers aren’t super surprising when you consider the fact that strong company cultures are difficult to create but easy to recognize. You may struggle to describe one, but you know it when you see it.

So what are some organizations getting right that others… just aren’t?

company culture guide


1. Shared jargon and norms

These are the behaviors, labels, and phrases your team adopts in order to get on the same page quickly. Over time, people start to learn — whether consciously or not — the way things work around the office.

How are meetings scheduled? How long do they last? Is punctuality really an issue? Is water cooler talk ok? How about casual Friday? Is that still a thing? How do we do things around here?

At Amazon, everybody knows there are two types of decisions: Type 1 decisions are irreversible, and therefore require more time and caution. Type 2 decisions can be easily be reversed, meaning precious time should not be wasted during the decision-making process.

When Jeff Bezos walks into a room and says there’s a Type 2 decision to be made, his team instantly understands the type of decision-making process they’re about to enter. Because of their shared jargon and norms, there’s no need to spend time deciding how important the decision is; that work has already been done, it’s part of the company culture and everybody knows it.

2. Trust in skills and intention

In order for people to work together effectively, they have to trust each other. There’s just no way around it.

Without the openness and connectedness that trust delivers, we end up with fewer ideas, weaker performance, and less innovation. Trust takes time to build but can be destroyed in an instant.

Adobe proudly touts their check-in approach, where “ongoing feedback flows freely.” As a result, employees at all levels of the organization feel valued and trusted to do their best.

Learn how to do employee check-ins with Kazoo→

3. A healthy dose of conflict

Safe conflict is not only a sign of a strong company culture but overall organizational health. As companies grow, the ability to disagree, but stay engaged, is the only path to great work.

Another rule of thumb Amazon uses to maintain trust and innovation is its ‘Disagree & Commit’ guideline. Each and every member of the team is encouraged to speak up when they disagree with a particular decision. But when the debate is over, someone is asked to disagree and commit in order to find resolution and move forward.

In a 2016 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos had this to say about the disagree and commit practice: “It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.”

4. Shared values

In work settings, it can feel almost impossible to work alongside someone with whom we don’t share values.

This doesn’t mean we always agree; quite the contrary. But when we know we’re all working toward the same outcome, magic happens. Every future action and decision is an overflow of those values.

At Zappos, candidates aren’t hired if their personal values don’t align with the Zappos mission. After two weeks on the job, new employees are even offered $2,000 to exit the company if they decide the job isn’t for them. Talk about valuing shared values!

5. Freedom to make mistakes & take risks

There is a real cost attached to people feeling they can’t mess up, admit failures, or ask questions at work.

When a workplace isn’t psychologically safe, problems are covered up instead of dealt with, employees don’t have the resources they need to succeed, and the stress of it all takes a toll on productivity.

Serial entrepreneur Jeff Stibel doesn’t just encourage failure; he demands it. If your team needs to work on its relationship with failure to create more psychological safety at work, here’s a thorough how-to guide.

6. An ownership mentality for everyone

When employees have a stake in their company, it shows. Engagement is higher, performance is better, and employees go the extra mile.

Netflix values instilling an ownership mentality for everyone, and they use the following metaphor about picking up trash in the hallway to convey it:

“There are companies where people walk by trash on the floor in the office, leaving it for someone else to pick it up, and there are companies where people in the office lean down to pick up the trash they see, as they would at home. We try hard to be the latter, a company where everyone feels a sense of responsibility to do the right thing to help the company at every juncture. Picking up the trash is the metaphor for taking care of problems, small and large, and never thinking ‘that’s not my job.’”

7. Practices that easily spread the culture to new people

Strong cultures spread. In order to achieve that, your culture needs to be documented, easy to share, and positively reinforced.

Like Zappos, whose culture book collects shared stories in employees’ own words. And Netflix, whose culture pitch deck is easily accessible for anyone, anytime. And Kazoo, (yes, us!) whose social recognition feed allows employees to tie company core values to real-time recognition.

Ultimately, building and keeping a strong culture takes concentrated effort and time. It’s not static; it’s living and breathing. We hope these seven pillars, and associated concrete examples can help you build a strong company culture for decades to come.

Ready to elevate your company culture?

Kazoo’s award-winning Employee Experience platform allows businesses to build cultures of recognition, feedback, and performance — all in one easy-to-use tool. Whether you’re looking to boost employee morale through more-frequent goal setting or public appreciation, our tools help companies build and grow world-class cultures from the ground up. To learn more, book a personalized demo today.

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Other helpful resources

Tips for Building a More Inclusive Workplace in 2019
Culture Fit Vs. Culture Add: Which Are You Hiring For?
A Blueprint for Effective Employee Engagement