Asking a person to describe his or her workplace culture is like asking a fish to describe water. The fish isn’t even aware of his environment because he is swimming in it and is completely oblivious to its presence or its importance, for that matter. Human beings are the same way about workplace culture. They are ‘swimming in it’ and are therefore oblivious it presence and really do have a tough time describing it even if asked a direct question about it.

I have been asked about the best definition I have seen for workplace culture and I believe that the best formal definition I have experienced is one put forth by Dan Denison, PhD a well-known authority on workplace culture who conducts research and teaches at the University of Michigan.  His workplace culture definition is:

“The underlying values, beliefs and principles that serve as a foundation for an organization’s management system as well as the practices and behaviors that both exemplify and reinforce those basic principles.”

In a nutshell then, workplace culture establishes the norms of behavior and shared values of an organization. It’s really ‘how one gets along around here’. But, why does it matter what kind of workplace cultures we develop?  It matters because truly high performance cultures and/or subcultures (subsidiaries, divisions, departments and teams) have three very compelling attributes:


  1. They consistently produce outstanding results
  2. They attract, motivate and retain top talent
  3. They successfully adapt to changing conditions


It was my honor to lead in two high performance cultures during their greatest years. Both organizations produced outstanding results and were great places to work during their zenith years. However, both companies lacked the ability to appropriate react and change to meet the challenges of their changing circumstances. Xerox, which could do no wrong during its hay-day, fell into disarray and today, is a mere shadow of what looked like an invincible corporation at one time. Marion Labs had the highest sales and highest profit per–employee in the pharmaceutical industry but lacked the new products to sustain its growth and had to be sold to a larger company, Dow Chemical.

So, you see, truly great cultures need to have all three of the above listed attributes, with the ability to change as a key component.

In the coming weeks we will be exploring how these workplace cultures and their subcultures are developed and how to be sure they become truly high performance organizations that are successfully striving to live up to their true potential.

Feel free to comment and or ask questions in the comments section of our web or blogsite.  Talk to you soon.