Why “Culture Starts at the Top” Is Not Enough

By Holly Mitchell & Jaime Lisk

You have likely heard the phrase, “Culture starts at the top.” While there is certainly merit to this statement, it’s not the full story. Organizational culture is shaped by shared patterns of values and behaviors that define the social and psychological environment within a group. You see “culture” everywhere—within your family, friends, fitness studio, department, and certainly in your company overall. The first step is acknowledging the culture. Then you must decide: Is this our desired culture or is there work to be done?

As a leader, it’s important to understand the sphere of influence you have over shaping the culture of your organization. Top-level leadership has the most influential, long-term impact on workplace culture. The decisions you make, behaviors you choose to ignore, and the way you walk, talk, and dress all impact the culture. When leaders are working in sync and living out the tenants of the desired culture, it won’t go unnoticed by the rest of the organization.

That united front must trickle down to mid-level management as well. Mid-level managers are critical in the evolution toward your desired culture because this is the group of leaders who have daily interactions with employees. Sharing the vision of the desired culture from top-level leaders to mid-level managers must be intentional. You can’t sit back and wait for them to catch on or buy-in. Mid-level managers should feel connected to and passionate about the desired culture. The culture that exists within departments, teams, or units has a direct impact on retention, performance, and the overall employee experience.

In turn, each employee’s experience within the organization will further shape the company culture. The experiences had by these employees who are the "boots on the ground" or individual contributors will inevitably either lift the company culture or quickly tear it down. Their the level of trust, sense of safety within their jobs, and alignment with the company’s mission and values are critical. Research shows that when leaders treat their employees like family and take time to understand their needs, it accelerates the company culture from the bottom up.

Your company culture is continually taking shape and evolving with every employee. Because we hire humans, emotions and feelings are a critical part. As you consider your company culture, here are three steps to consider:

Assess Your Culture. This can be done by simply asking managers and their teams the following:

  • What are the company values and mission?
  • Do you contribute to the company’s success through your work?
  • Do you feel valued and empowered?

Develop Your Culture. It can take years to shape a healthy culture within your company and it’s something that can’t be rushed. From your culture assessment you can take action in the following ways:

  • Make your company values clear for all employees to feel aligned and empowered to take ownership.
  • Take action on what will help employees feel like they are all working as a team toward a common goal.

If you discover that there is room for improvement (and there usually is) it starts with encouraging one influential leader at a time. As one team member begins to feel connected, strengthened and empowered, it is natural for this energy to leak out across teams.

Tend Your Culture. In order to continue cultivating and growing your desired culture, it must be nurtured, similar to tending a garden. This means creating a safe and energetic environment for your employees and managers. Remember, culture isn't something you achieve and then move on. Culture is something that is a constant within each company. As employees come and go, new jobs are created, and promotions are given, the culture continues to change and evolve.