How to Define Your Work Culture in 10 Steps

Work culture

March 4, 2013. That’s when my fascination with work culture began, because that’s when I first experienced the type of culture that makes you thankful to come to work each morning. It’s when I joined LevelEleven.

Ever since, I’ve read and chatted and written about culture, simply in efforts to understand how companies can take something that, when it works, seems so organic and then make it tangible enough to define.

Defining Work Culture:

Jackie Trepanier-Simon, leadership and career development coach at Cultivated Coaching says culture simply means “shared values within an organization.” Our friends at Roundpegg say for them it’s: “how we do things in our organization.

At LevelEleven, we say it’s what makes us…well, us. And although our culture has been pretty unprescribed thus far, we recently decided to define it for these three reasons:

  • We’re in high-growth mode right now, and we want to hold on to our culture as we move forward.
  • We love our culture, and we know that the right future candidates for our team will feel the same. Sharing our culture code allows us to generate additional enthusiasm when recruiting.
  • A part of holding on to today’s shared values means before we bring those new hires on board, we make sure they’re cultural fits. By taking time to better understand our culture, we’re able to better understand what to look for when interviewing potential new team members.

Here’s some of the wisdom we learned on how to define work culture, to help those of you interested in doing the same:

How to Define Your Work Culture:


1. Go in unbiased.

So, you’ve decided to define your culture. Reading other companies’ culture codes, might seem like a natural place to start. If you’re defining a culture that already works well, though, don’t read anything. (At least right now.) Otherwise, it’s too easy to go into the process with notions of what you want the culture to be, without enough consideration toward what already fits well in your environment.

2. Put initial ideas on paper.

Draft a list of what you think comprises your culture. Take time to come up with strong points, and polish the copy as if it were the final thing. Then put that aside.

3. Get team insight.

Conduct interviews with several individuals on each of your teams. It’s good to interview some leadership here, but leave at least two leaders without interviews for now. If you only have two (or fewer) other leaders, don’t interview any of them right now.

When you do interview team members, start with questions like these:

  • When I mention our culture, what are your first thoughts?
  • What has worked in terms of our culture?
  • What hasn’t worked?
  • Without calling anyone out, think about some people who might not have worked out here because they weren’t a cultural fit. What does that tell you about our culture?

Then sometimes you just need to adjust your language a bit if any responses lack substance. For example, you may come across hesitations when it’s time to talk about what doesn’t work. Ask those team members:

  • If there was anything you could add to our culture, what would it be?

That puts a more positive spin on the question and can draw out new answers.

Or, others might not be able to come up with strong ideas on what has worked. It can help to ask them:

  • Which part of our culture do you think is really important for us to hold on to as we grow?

Simply taking a new angle can supply all sorts of new, comprehensive feedback.

4. Analyze the interviews.

Compare the information learned through interviews to the original draft you wrote. Watch for trends. Did more than one person share something not on your initial draft? Consider adding it. Did multiple team members mention a point already on your list? This validates keeping it as part of your copy moving forward.

5. Modify your draft according to #4.

Tip: As you do this, make sure to keep your list simple. We tried to get ours down to four points here. It was ambitious, and we could only actually get the list down to eight, but this goal helped us stay focused.

6. Take it to the executive level.

Now take your polished draft back to those executives you skipped over in initial interviews. See what they think. Yes, part of this is about what’s already working, but it’s also time for you and the rest of your leadership team to talk about what you want the culture to be. At this time, if you’d like to check out some of those other culture codes for inspiration, go for it. (You’ve probably already heard of the popular ones, like Netflix and Hubspot, but check out some of the smaller guys too, just for the sake of staying well-rounded in your brainstorming.)

7. Narrow down your list.

Again, try to aim for as few points as possible. You don’t want to overcomplicate these, or you’ll water down what you’re choosing to highlight. At this point, we got our list down to five.

8.  Share it with your entire team in a meeting.

Walk through each point, and ask for feedback. It’s not too late to make changes based on what you hear. In fact, never consider your culture code final.

9. Polish, and start broadcasting.

If you can, come up with an acronym around your culture code or dress it up with design components to add some personality. Then post the code to your social media channels, “Jobs” page, Slideshare account or wherever else makes sense.

10. Make sure to use it.

The most critical step is this last one: Make sure you actually use your code. Pay attention to it as you consider bringing on new team members, publicly recognize individuals living out your culture and check in with your team every so often to see how leadership is doing culturally, so that everyone’s held accountable for living this out. Also take a look at the code quarterly to make sure it still makes sense. If it needs tweaking, you can always take on steps 1-9 again.

There you have it: Ten steps to take your work culture from undefined to entirely alive. The deeper you weave it through your day-to-day routines from here, the greater you’ll boost engagement, retention and your team’s ability to dominate sales goals. Not a bad outcome out of 10 steps, right?

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