Reverse culture shock happens to employees who return to their home countries after working abroad. But there’s another cultural orientation everyone experiences – joining a new company or organization.  A workplace is more than physical elements. Every office possesses its own atmospherics that reflect how individuals and groups behave, make decisions, and contribute to the mission of the organization.  That’s workplace culture.

Workplace Culture Defined

Workplace culture is a set of common values and behavioral norms that are generally accepted by a group or team. It’s also how individuals relate to each other, perform their work, and perceive how those external to the group perceive them.  Not all cultures benefit the organization.  Effective workplace cultures happen when the collective values of the team, and individuals’ perceptions of their value to the team, move the group in the direction to achieve the goals of the organization.

What Culture Is Not

Much online chatter associates culture to the benefits or perks of working in a company.  Generous leave and benefits packages, on-site fitness or child care centers, roving masseuses, or free gourmet meals might influence a workplace culture, but they don’t define it. These perks or benefits might enhance morale, but they’re not necessarily an indicator of how members of the organization interact with one another, perform their work, or believe the group is perceived by others.

Perks don’t necessarily translate to an environment of autonomy, creativity, consensus building, or other conditions that foster a strong workplace culture. Who among us has had a boss who occasionally bought lunch for the team, but was reluctant to empower employees, collaborate on decisions, or encourage innovative thinking?  Who among us would have traded those free lunches for more autonomy?

Why Culture Matters

Culture sets the tone for how employees interact with others, perform their individual roles, and generally feel about being at work every day.  Essentially, a strong, positive workplace culture inspires employees to do their best, and sustains them when things go wrong. Culture should be an element that uplifts and supports employees during stressful times.  Conversely, a workplace culture that is the source of stress can derail team efforts and demoralize otherwise talented and motivated employees.  Culture is also important to organizations – Zappos offers new employees a $2,000 incentive to depart within the first two weeks if employees feel the culture isn’t the right fit.

Influences On Culture

While it’s ideal when leaders communicate workplace culture through their messages and behavior, culture will develop with or without leadership’s influence.  Without a leader’s influence, the culture will sway with the strongest influences of the group (though possibly not the most positive ones).  Leaders who fail to intentionally establish and communicate a positive culture waste crucial opportunities to ensure team members work in a positive and supportive atmosphere so that the team can perform at optimum levels.

Attributes of a Great Workplace Culture

Perhaps you’re a leader assessing the current state of the culture in your organization.  Maybe you’re an employee trying to determine if a new or potential workplace will be a good cultural fit for you.  Ask yourself – or others – the following questions:

Do the Core Values Resonate? The most positive cultures are those where the values of the organization intersect with those of the employees.  In 2015, profiled some inspiring organizational values statements.  They range from whimsical (Build-A-Bear: “Reach, Learn, Di-bear-sity, Colla-bear-ate, Cele-bear-ate”) to practical simplicity (LL Bean: “Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.”) to downright inspiring (Twitter:  “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”).  When employees can get behind the value statement, a positive culture will follow.

What’s the Locus of Decision Making?  Decisions made based on what makes the team go further create a culture of collaboration.  Decisions made based on efficiencies or what benefits the customer create a culture of excellence and customer service. Decisions made based on the interests of or benefits to single individuals create a culture that emphasizes protecting single portfolios versus optimizing team performance.

What is the Level of Empowerment?  Strong cultures encourage employees to take risks and implement ideas or changes that improve their immediate areas of influence.  Employee autonomy to innovate, and even experience occasional failure without fear of adverse consequences, equates to a culture of empowerment.

What Is the Level of Inclusion?  Strong cultures exist when employees believe they work toward a larger common goal or purpose that is bigger and more important than their single portfolios.  When team members feel valued and that their peers and leaders have their backs, a culture of inclusion and mutual support will flourish.

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Melissa Jordan is an Executive Writer at a US Government agency. With more than 20 years in professional communication and over 16 years of experience working in cross-cultural environments, her most valuable lessons have been learned by trial and error.