Culture is often credited with attracting, deterring, retaining and/or driving employees away from companies. Candidates work diligently to understand company culture before accepting an offer and business leaders apply extensive resources to manage and cultivate desired culture in the office. Yet no two people will agree fully on the definition of culture or companies can turn culture into a competitive advantage.

A common definition for corporate culture is “the philosophy, values, behaviors, dress codes, etc., that together constitute the unique style and policies of a company.” This leaves plenty of room for variation and interpretation in articulating and designing a company’s culture. Perhaps the most challenging aspect to “getting culture right” derives from the variation between people in how they are impacted by their personal situations, backgrounds, and priorities leading to not only to disagreement on what is attractive, but also the degree to which element are important.

Job satisfaction is generally highest in people who have a balance between satisfying their individual wants, family needs and professional ambitions. While most elements creating value in one of these categories sit neatly within that one category, many factors influencing job satisfaction that are associated with culture influence multiple categories.

This complicates cultural design for employers because there is a natural tension between each of these categories. Not only can employers throw job satisfaction out of balance by paying too much attention to one category at the expense of another, but companies can make investments to positively impact one category, but these investments end up generating an overall negative impact because of how they impact other dimensions.

For example, flexible working location is a cultural element companies often offer employees to better address family needs. Yet not having people predictably in the office reduces networking opportunities which when present could accelerate people’s career opportunities thereby damaging professional advancement for some people. Not having as many people in the office also reduces the energy level in the office and reduces frequency of social interaction between people. This can undermine efforts to address the personal wants of employees who want to have deep social and professional relationships with coworkers. Effectively, a cultural win for the family dimension is a cultural fail on the personal and professional dimensions.

As job markets have become more liquid and employees have taken more control of their careers, companies have smartly started paying more attention to culture. While approaching culture with conscious intention is a good first step, many employers still over-simplify their approach to the situation. Most often this happens because employers think of job satisfaction as being tied to the aggregated value across individual wants, family needs and professional ambitions, completely missing the importance of balance.

This subtle, but important misstep leads companies to orient culture towards creating spikes in value in one dimension. One great example is beer in the office on Fridays, a practice that probably has more publicity than frequency in application, but one which exemplifies a common issue. The availability of beer in the office on Fridays is meant to relax the environment while infusing a pleasant social element to the workplace. It is meant to offer something unique and valuable towards addressing personal wants. However, it does nothing to satisfy family needs or professional ambitions and can work in the opposite direction on those topics if employees are not careful.

A more common, but less obvious example of the same misstep comes from having a strongly meritocratic culture. Transparently rewarding strong performance with more rapid career advancement and/or increased compensation provides a significant benefit for professional ambitions but can lead employees to balance work and life responsibilities in a way that poorly addresses family needs. It can also develop an environment where the competition inspired by the meritocratic environment reduces collaboration and social interaction hurting the personal want dimension.

In additional to ignoring the need for balance, an equally common blunder in managing culture comes from not separating strong culture and effective culture. Many companies work diligently to strengthen their culture through internal marketing campaigns and more intense engagement with employees on topics core to company culture. Unfortunately, in doing so, many companies make a bad situation worse by intensifying issues rather than proliferating benefits. Strengthening an already healthy and effective culture through promoting the positive aspects of that culture can certainly add value, but companies must first have an effective culture.

While there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap for culture, companies do need to address three key topics to develop an effective culture:

  • Align corporate culture with business objectives
  • Ensure culture encourages employees to deliver the desired experience to customers
  • Define culture to support balance across job fulfillment categories

Companies should be aware that an investment in the right culture can generate positive, but painful opportunities. It is not uncommon for companies who recognize an opportunity to benefit from shifting company culture to realize that many current employees do not fit as well with the future organization. In the long-term, developing a better aligned workforce is ideal, but practicalities of business suggest a quick transition is often too risky. For that reason, many companies take culture change journeys in multiple discrete steps over time to ease the management of the risk associated with the change.

Only when companies are confident that their intended corporate culture effectively addresses these points should they worry about how to transition to, embed and/or market that culture to employees and candidates.