Understanding the Culture of a Company, Part 2: Deeper Culture

Some aspects of a company are easy to see from the outside. These “surface” elements include things like the logo, building, language, and communication style.

But there is also a foundational layer that are an extension of the owner’s beliefs and values.

Let’s explore the mysteries that lie under the surface of a company… the Deeper Culture.

What’s Under the Surface?

External aspects of a company are fairly easy to evaluate (read about the Surface Culture here).

But beyond the image that a company presents to the outside world, a rich layer exists: one of humor and beauty… or of bias and intimidation.

This layer is invisible.

It’s not specifically planned or explicitly stated. In fact, the values that form a company’s deeper culture may even be subconscious, which means the owner doesn’t even realize how their personal beliefs are affecting the business “do’s and don’ts.”

Let’s examine some of the ways a company’s hidden culture can show up.

The 25 Aspects of Deeper Culture

As a business owner, your belief system, actions, and behaviors can affect your company in many ways. These include:

  1. Specific ways of doing things (“The XYZ Way”)
  2. Inside knowledge
  3. Underlying assumptions

Shared values and beliefs about…

  1. Religion and politics
  2. Core values
  3. Environment
  4. Modesty
  5. Humor

Concepts of…

  1. Friendship
  2. Time
  3. Justice
  4. Value
  5. Roles
  6. Cleanliness
  7. Personal space
  8. Beauty ideals

Attitudes toward…

  1. Authority
  2. Competition
  3. Money and wealth
  4. Decision-making and problem-solving
  5. Peers and other generations
  6. School and learning
  7. Work
  8. Health and well-being
  9. Medical intervention
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The Company Culture Iceberg

The “Company Culture Iceberg” concept was originally developed by Edward T. Hall in his book “Beyond Culture” (1976) and by Gary R. Weaver in “Understanding and Coping with Cross-cultural Adjustment Stress” (1986).

Let’s dive into each of these twenty-five areas of Deeper Culture.

1. Specific ways of doing things (“The XYZ Way”)

One way to set your company apart is to establish a particular way of doing something. This could be anything: a simple motto, a 3-step process, or a philosophy of how your company operates.

Because many people are visual learners, you might consider providing images that make your methods more accessible. One way to do is to create a visual model that shows the relationships, processes, and flow of information of abstract concepts (see my examples below).

This model doesn’t have to be made public. If you prefer for your company methodology to stay private, you could use your Model internally in business planning meetings and staff training.

But if you want, you can share your methodology with the public in your marketing materials, or even as part of a blog or video series, customer training, or sales presentations.

Here are some questions to ask about your methods:

  • Do you have a “[Your Company] Way” or particular methodology?
  • How you sharing that method with your employees and customers?

I use a Strategic Risk Framework to explain my method for evaluating company vulnerabilities.

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Framework for Grace LaConte’s approach to Strategic Risk

Below is my Strategic Risk Diagnostic Process, which is a visual representation of the consulting process I use with clients.

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LaConte Consulting’s Strategic Risk Diagnostic Process

2. Inside Knowledge

Consider your background and expertise, as well as the insights you have gained over the years.

As part of owning and running a business, you have probably also collected intellectual property. This can be of value when you decide to sell the company. It could also be an asset from which you can design a training course, book, or even develop a franchise model.

  • What is the “secret sauce” that makes your brand stand out?
  • How do you create an unforgettable experience for customers?
  • What special insights do you have about the customer’s needs and pain points?
  • What type of “inside information” do you share with staff?
  • Does your management team function as a high-level clique? Do you tend to leave staff out of conversations about strategy?
  • Where is your company’s reference library? Do you keep it stocked with updated materials to train new staff?
  • How often do you update policies and procedures (P&Ps)?

3. Underlying Assumptions

We constantly “fill in the gaps” of missing knowledge when we respond based on our previous experiences, theories, and observations of how things work.

  • What are your core beliefs about the industry you serve?
  • What assumptions did you make when starting the company?
  • What do you believe about your customers’ needs? Their experiences? Their pain points?
  • What benefits do you assume your services and products provide?
  • If you receive new information that contradicts your assumption, what steps would you take to adjust the way your business runs?

Read more: 5 Painful Discussions That No Organization Should Ignore

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Deeper culture involves our
Shared values and beliefs about…

4. Religion and Politics

Religion and politics are emotionally charged topics. It’s important to be conscious of the effects that can result from voicing strong political beliefs. For some companies where the owner is very vocal about her or his viewpoints, this may be a hallmark of the company culture.

But if you want to reach a wider audience, this may require you to temper your personal views with a sensitivity to the differing beliefs of your potential customers.

Some thoughts to keep in mind:

  • What are your religious and political values?
  • Do you want these beliefs to be integrated in your work culture?
  • Are you adamant about particular moral issues? Which ones are non-negotiable in your company?
  • Which potential risks could happen as a result of promoting a particular set of belief on employees?
  • What is your belief about…
    • Civic Values (responsibility to government, right to vote)
    • Equality
    • Freedom
    • Individual rights
    • Patriotism
    • Respect for the law

Read more: How to Recognize Implicit Bias After What Happened to Starbucks

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5. Core Values

Our expectations and what we think of as “normal” can affect the way we create a business culture.

  • How would you define “family values”?
  • How important is peace and harmony in a work environment?
  • Do you believe that trust is something that leaders earn, or to which they are entitled?
  • What is your policy on respecting the boundaries, property, and the opinions of others?
  • Who should take ultimate responsibility? When something goes wrong, who takes the blame?
  • What do you believe is more valuable: time, money, or quality? (this is the Project Management Triangle)
  • When staff experience difficulties, is the company responsible for providing support and care?
  • What do you believe about:
    • Respect and courtesy
    • Volunteer work (do you give paid time off for your staff to volunteer?)
    • Standing up for the rights of others
    • Appropriate discipline and punishment (how far should discipline go?)
    • Offensive language
    • Cooperation with others
    • Commitment level at work
    • Productivity
    • Motivation and achievement
    • Financial stability
    • Importance of continued education
  • How do you define these terms? How important are they in your company?
    • Honesty
    • Courage
    • Integrity
    • Empathy
    • Self-Control
    • Patience
    • Gratitude
    • Fun

6. Environment

The way a company feels, looks, and smells are all a reflection of the values of its owners. Consider the importance of Appearance, Flexibility, Connection, Nature, and Privacy in your organization.

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The Perfect Workplace Environment

I’ll be covering this topic in an upcoming post.

7. Modesty

The word modesty means “showing humility about one’s speech, dress, or behavior.” It has to do with restraint, simplicity, and politeness (showing understanding of others’ feelings).

  • How do you define “modest dress”? What is the standard you want all staff to meet?
  • Do you expect employees to follow a clothing style or uniform?
  • Have you created Policies and Procedures about
    • modesty,
    • behavior, and
    • speech?
  • Are those expectations clearly explained to employees during onboarding?
  • Do you follow all of these standards for modesty?
  • What happens when an employee does not follow a policy?

Read more: How to Estimate the Qualitative Loss From Staff Turnover

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8. Humor

The type of humor, amount of joke-telling, and degree of goofiness in a company depends on the leaders’ cultural beliefs and values. Of course, you want the workplace environment to be fun and exciting. But you need to further define what kind of culture you want: one that encourages wittiness and constant joking, or an attitude that is more subdued and serious?

Laughter is important. Ideally, we all want to be in a place that gives us the freedom to be ourselves, whether that includes being free to crack a joke, act silly, or be left alone (spoken like a true introvert).

However, as with Modesty (above), one person’s definition of “humor” could be offensive to someone else.

Here are some things to consider:

  • What is your philosophy about telling jokes, laughter, poking fun, comedy, and “black humor”?
  • Is any subject matter or humor category considered “off limits”?
  • Do you have a policy about intimidation and harassment? How do you enforce it?

Other aspects of Deeper Culture include
Concepts of…

9. Friendship

  • How important is it to you that employees develop strong relationships with leaders and each other? Or is it okay for employees to separate their work and persona lives?
  • Is there a strong expectation to spend time with fellow staff members outside of work hours?
  • What is the level of appropriate familiarity while at work?
    • Is touching, proximity, affection, and intimacy permitted?
    • How do you define these boundaries?
  • What is your policy on inter-office romance?

10. Time

Your personality, priorities, and degree of self-discipline will have a significant impact on your expectations of others.

  • Which tasks should get done first?
  • Are the daily priorities clear, or do we “go with the flow”?
  • Are appointment times rigid or suggested?
  • What is the policy for late arrivals (staff and customers)? How do you enforce this?
  • How much flexibility is allowed for breaks and scheduled hours?

11. Justice

Our sense of right and wrong is also reflected in the company culture we create.

  • What do we believe is reasonable, proper, and fair?
  • How do you define these concepts?
    • “Flexing” the law (using marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, speeding)
    • Telling white lies (dishonesty)
    • “Working the system” to get ahead (cheating)
    • Taking small items (stealing)
    • Making damaging lifestyle choices
    • Shifting blame vs. accepting responsibility
  • How do you enforce the rules in your company?
  • Do you report illegal or unethical activity to law enforcement or the appropriate governing body?
  • Which rules do you consider non-negotiable and fireable?
  • If they’re completely honest, would your staff say that you are a fair and reasonable leader?

12. Value

What we perceive as significant can be very different than what others believe.

  • On what, or whom, do you place the most importance?
  • How do you estimate the value of people, time, objects, and resources?
  • How do you prioritize activities?
  • What message are you sending about what has value and what does not?

13. Roles

  • What are your beliefs about roles based on…
    • age,
    • gender,
    • class,
    • nationality,
    • and other characteristics? (See a full list here)
  • Do you expect certain job roles to match these characteristics?
    • For example, do you think nurse’s aides should be female?
    • Do you expect mechanics to be male?
  • Are you limiting the roles available in your company based on your personal criteria?
    • Has anyone ever complained or made comments about this?

14. Cleanliness

  • What is your standard for clean conditions at the company?
  • How concerned are you about…
    • tidying up,
    • reducing clutter,
    • sanitizing surfaces, and
    • reducing exposure to illness?

15. Personal Space

  • What is your philosophy about personal space?
    • Is it an entitlement,
    • a reward for good behavior, or
    • irrelevant and not important to you?
  • How much privacy can each employee expect?
  • Do customers prefer a particular use of space, proximity, and layout?
    • Are those beliefs different than yours?
  • Is your office designed to provide formal, casual, and private areas?
  • How closely do you stand or sit next to others when you speak to them?
    • Does that ever make people uncomfortable?

Tim Stock (author of Mapping Culture) shows the difference between intimate, personal, social, and public space in the image below.

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Psychology of Space: Proxemics (courtesy Tim Stock, co-founder of ScenarioDNA)

16. Beauty Ideals

Aesthetics is the theory of art and beauty. We often don’t consider the effect that our beliefs about beauty and art will have on the operations of a company.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your philosophy about…
    • physical beauty (human body, art, expression)
    • intellectual beauty (who is smart? what is intelligence?)
    • intuitive beauty (mindset, feeling, experience)
    • the beauty of emotional comfort (interpersonal, nature or green therapy)
    • the beauty to inspire and understand (teaching, coaching, helping, serving)
    • the beauty of divine presence (a higher power in the mundane, inner light, divine wisdom, all-encompassing love, higher consciousness)
  • Can you name your ideal beauty standards?
  • How do you celebrate or encourage diversity of design, appearance, and thought?
  • Are there any underlying fears and biases toward or against certain beauty ideals?
  • Do you tend to reward or disadvantage others based on their appearance?

Attitudes toward…

17. Authority

This aspect of culture has to do with your beliefs about power and weakness, strength and frailty, domination and surrender.

  • If there’s a queue, who gets to go first?
  • Do some people in your company get preferential treatment? Why does this happen?
  • Are you (and other leaders) able and willing to hear “bad news?
  • Have you found a good balance between leading with too much Yin (weakness) or Yang (aggression)?

Read more: Yin and Yang Approaches to Management

yin and yang, balance, management, leadership approaches

18. Competition

  • What is your philosophy about winning?
  • Do you believe it’s important to “win at all costs,” or do you prefer to collaborate and yield to what others want?
  • Are your staff incentivized to “close a deal” with little regard to building long-lasting relationships?
  • Do your departments undercut each other, or are they working toward the same strategic goals?

Read more: Why Unconscious Aggression is So Hard to See as a Leader

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19. Money and Wealth

  • What is your philosophy about money?
  • Do you see money as
    • bad or good?
    • difficult to get?
    • or is it easy to get?
    • is money helpful and useful, or
    • the “root of all evil”?
  • How do you and your team discuss money? How is it viewed by others?
  • Are you nervous about discussing payment with customers?

Read more: What is Transaction Avoidance Syndrome?

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20. Decision-Making and Problem-Solving

  • How do you make important decisions? What is your process?
  • What is your risk tolerance? (comfort with possible threats)
  • How much freedom do you give employees to make independent decisions?
  • What tools do you use to solve business problems?
  • Who are your mentors and advisors when you need help?
  • How are you evaluating decisions and adjusting for the future?

Read more: The Ultimate Strategic Planning Framework Tool: Introduction

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21. Peers and Other Generations

  • Do you believe your generation is the most… hard-working, intelligent, responsible, etc?
  • How do you view teenagers?
  • What do you think about “the elderly”? How should they be treated?
  • Do you employ staff who are of diverse ages and generations?
    • Boomers
    • Gen X
    • Millennials
    • Gen Z

22. School and Learning

  • What is your philosophy about education? How important is it to you?
  • How much continuing training do you expect your staff to receive?
  • Do you make learning a priority?
  • How do you measure the benefit and positive outcomes of continuing education?
  • What incentives do you offer to encourage your staff to get more education?

23. Work

  • What is your philosophy about work? Is it
    • fun,
    • boring,
    • annoying,
    • exciting,
    • unpleasant,
    • interesting…?
  • To what degree do you value outcomes over hours?
  • Do you focus on “looking busy” over achieving specific goals?
  • Are punishments and rewards arbitrary and unexpected, or based on clear criteria?

24. Health and well-being

  • What is your philosophy about health?
    • (I define it as “An optimal state that maximizes the potential for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.”)
  • In what ways does your company value a healthy lifestyle?
  • How much flexibility do you give staff and customers to make healthy choices? (time, space, resources, options)
  • Do you “practice what you preach”?
  • Could your enthusiasm be going too far?

25. Medical intervention

This final culture category is especially significant for healthcare service providers, but it can apply to any organization.

  • What is your philosophy about medical care?
  • Has a health crisis affected you personally? How did that impact your perspective?
  • Do you favor seeking natural health options versus modern techniques, or a combination?
  • In what circumstances do you prefer a hands-off, non-intrusive medical approach?
  • What are the limits to your services? When do you believe it is appropriate to get outside help?
  • In what circumstances do you believe medical intervention is always—or never—appropriate?
  • What are your patients’ orcustomers’ beliefs about medical intervention?

Read more: 11 Compelling Reasons to Niche Your Healthcare Practice

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Applications for Deeper Culture Awareness

If you are open-minded and are willing to feel discomfort in order to improve your company, I recommend trying these ideas.

1. Welcome “bad news” from your staff and customers.

“Bad news” includes the ideas and feedback that people are thinking—but not necessarily telling YOU.

Consider hosting a forum so employees can discuss their concerns about culture topics with you. These conversations can result in a tremendously positive change for your company culture, and for those you serve.

Let’s Define… What is “Bad News”?

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2. Be an Employee For a Day

Another great tool for recognizing hidden biases in your culture is with the “Employee For a Day” process. This involves a commitment by you (and perhaps other top leaders as well) to spend significant time in the job roles of your Foundational Staff: people at the bottom of your organization. When done with an attitude of humility and willingness to learn, this can open some doors to seeing inconsistencies, barriers, and flawed thinking that will make a huge difference in your organization.

Read more: “Employee For a Day”: How to Start

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3. Experience more pain.

You might find some of these questions to Deeper Culture difficult to answer. Some of them could make you feel uncomfortable, or even bring up old fears.

In my discussions with clients about the company culture they want to create, I find it helpful to identify areas of pain. Read more about this in my 3-part series on pain (starting with this post).

Read more about Pain and Decision Making: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Want to read Part 1 of this series? You can find it here: Understanding the Culture of a Company, Part 1: Surface Culture

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I wish you well on your journey to evaluating and defining your company’s deeper culture!

If you are wondering whether your business is presenting the right culture to customers, let’s talk. Find out more here.

Grace LaConte is a profitability expert, writer, and speaker. She is the founder of LaConte Consulting, which provides business owners with practical ways to improve their company's profit, growth, and value. Grace also shares her thoughts about marketing strategies and the dangers of predatory tactics used by MLM (multi-level marketing), which you can find at https://laconteconsulting.com/blog. She is based near Houston, Texas.

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