Grit, mindfulness, learning organizations — we’ve all heard these concepts circulating the business world. Even high turnover and poor engagement businesses still hang signs declaring their employees are their most important asset. But a business’ true and accurate organizational culture is not defined by the latest HR fads or motivational signs.

Organizational culture is best described as a complex set of rules and norms that drives the social environment of your company and affects how your business operates. In layman’s terms, it is how you do things. Understanding your company’s culture is crucial to fostering a productive work environment, realistic employee satisfaction and predictable job performance. It is what’s at the heart of your organization — what you and your employees value, your goals and motivations, and how the moving parts fit together to get things done.

And as important as organizational culture is, few companies actually get it right. Of the over 250 organizations we have done culture work with, less than 10% of the “words on the wall” actually match the organization’s actions and directives. Most executives are unable to accurately describe their business’ authentic culture — they say it is one thing, but really it is another.

At the individual level a lot of people are of the opinion their authentic self is a thorough, precise and well practiced version of who they want to be. But in reality, what you believe to be the authentic version of you (or your company) is usually artificial and is really a collection of confirmation bias based on your interpretation of past experiences. Not being real about your true self (or your company) is what is really at the heart of culture issues.

Here’s how to identify your authentic culture, understand its ramifications and deliberately work through it to be true to your organization’s roots.

Myth of the “Ideal” Culture

Lists of how to create the “right” organizational culture are abundant. You may have read about how learner companies (or at least sixth grade children) outperform knower companies, or that every company should be Deliberately Developmental. And it may be tempting for CEOs to think they need to be more like Apple, or try to adopt what Elon Musk is doing. But doing this will rarely, if ever, generate the increased employee engagement, retention or productivity that accurately and deliberately living your organization’s authentic culture will.

What we have found is that it really doesn’t matter what your business’ unique culture is as long as your leaders embrace it and are explicit with their employees on how things are done. In fact, The JDL Group has never told anyone their business’ culture is wrong or must change. We have found cultural policing, or forcing a culture that doesn’t fit your organization, to be of no benefit. If you want to do something that really works, get candid with your team about your values and how your organization runs.

“As I talk with executives and ask them to describe their organization’s culture, they usually immediately ask if their culture is right and if they are doing things the ‘right’ way,” explains Dr. Jared D. Lock, founder and CEO at The JDL Group. “Whatever your culture is, it’s okay. But be accurate. Know what your culture is and hire the right people for it. There will be people who like to work the way you do, as long as you are deliberate with that culture.”

What Drives Organizational Culture?

Your organization has its own unique culture whether it has been accurately defined or not. The majority of your organization’s cultural make-up comes from its CEO and high-level executives — their leadership drives how managers and employees behave and what incentives encourage the degree they buy into your cultural values.

The rest comes from the summation of each employee’s agreement or disagreement with the expressed principles of your organization. Individuals will ignore what they don’t like, embrace what they do and can be persuaded on what they’re unsure of, creating what The JDL Group calls the 30-30-30 culture rule. Regardless of what your culture is today, what you try to do about it or how you want to change it, roughly 30% will love it and live it, 30% like some and not the rest, and the remaining 30% won’t like it or will be indifferent. This is going to happen before a company decides to be accurate. Before a company decides to deliberately work with their culture. But it ALWAYS happens when you’re trying to make a change.

The resulting behavior makes up your organization’s culture. Each employee contributes through how they react to what’s being said at the top. This creates a very unique culture that is subject to change as each aspect is funneled through individual evaluation. How “keeping it real” is manifested in the accounting department under Jim likely is different than its manifestation under Sally in Sales.

“Our cultures come from within,” says Dr. Lock. “Regardless of what we do as HR professionals, people live by their own values and characteristics. They focus on what matters to them, filter the rest out, and if they cannot filter it out, or there is too much to filter, they will choose to leave or your company may find they do not fit.”

Though culture is generated at the top, it is not under direct control by any individual. Each employee has an impact on your organization’s culture and it is highly important to get everyone on the same page with at least two-to-five main values, beliefs and cultural variables in order to get a cohesive employee-base that strives to live by the organization’s values.

How We Reveal an Organization’s Authentic Culture

To determine an organization’s true culture, The JDL Group’s team of licensed I-O psychologists work with CEOs and executive teams to find out what they believe their culture is. When we get the leadership team to be vulnerable and talk through those things, we find there are usually two-to-three things they agree to and are consistent with. These foci, and potentially a few non-negotiables, become very clear.

We then use the results from our Whole Person Assessment — specifically their motives and values scores — to get to the bottom of what the culture really is. Incongruity between a company’s expressed culture and how that culture plays out via the assessment and then behaviorally in the organization indicates companies are not being straightforward about what their company is all about.

“Most organizations feel compelled to always say their people are their most important asset. They say this to their employees, put it on their walls and act as if it is true. Yet, when put to the test through our assessment process, we find their altruism scores are very low and their need to create a close-knit community almost non-existent. By comparing their own reality (what they say) with actual reality (their assessment results), we’re able to get a more complete and accurate picture of where they really stand in terms of culture, which allows us to accurately define and deliberately move them to where they want to be,” says Dr. Lock.

Accurately and Deliberately Living Your Culture

Once you’ve established your organization’s authentic culture, it’s time to be accurate and deliberate. Across 115 organizations where we’ve successfully identified their true culture, helped them to understand its ramifications and helped them to accurately and deliberately live it, they saw (on average) a 33% jump in performance, a 21% bump in employee engagement, a 25% decrease in turnover and were making 5% more profit than their competitors. Culture matters — it is a bottom-line result and an important piece of what people and organizations are doing and where they’re going.

So, what does it mean to be accurate and deliberate? It doesn’t mean you have read the latest book and are doing what the author says. A deliberate culture is where a company reacts through their culture and does things consciously and intentionally. It is when the organization’s words and reality are the same. It is understanding the ramifications of who the organization is, verses who it wants to be, who it thinks it is, or who it wants to become. So, if you are really hard on employees, expect more out of them, give them real tough and sometimes interpersonally insensitive feedback, but pay them 20% more than the competition, tell them that.

“When we get organizations to be honest to incoming candidates, to live both the “good” (as defined by the latest fad book) and “bad” (i.e., reality in the workplace) with employees, and not try to hide it or fake away from it, things work out,” says Dr. Lock.

The best thing about being deliberate about your authentic culture is your managers don’t have to act differently, but instead can say here is who I am and what I believe in. They won’t “forget” what the culture is supposed to be. Most importantly employees see consistency between words and actions. And while they may like some of those words and actions more than others, at least they know what will happen if they perform in certain — making a constant choice in terms of what to do.

In the End

In the end, don’t ignore the culture you have. Instead, know what it is and be accurate and deliberate. Decide how aggressively you will deal with the 30-30-30 culture rule when making changes. Find out who the 30% are who like your authentic culture and want to live it and get them to show the middle 30% how to move over to your true culture. Now your culture initiative has a 60% acceptance rate and the 30% who don’t like it are now a true minority. Again, we don’t judge culture at The JDL Group; we just ask executives and managers to be consistent.

The JDL Group’s Culture Initiatives

Your company’s market space, market share and ultimate success depends on understanding and leveraging your “real” culture, climate and value system. Beyond simple words on a wall, The JDL Group helps organizations accurately define their true written, unwritten, public, private and actual culture, understand how to use it to their advantage, and help predict what will happen when they try to change it.

The JDL Group has delivered on successful culture initiatives in more than 100 companies by getting them to embrace their culture authentically and communicate this directly to employees. Culture is about who you are as an organization, how you define yourself, and ultimately matters for your future success.

“It’s our job to get past the BS and get to the real idea of what the culture is,” explains Dr. Lock. “Leaders need to be honest, and it’s up to us to get them to be honest on what differentiates their organization and makes it unique.”

Learn more about our culture initiatives here.

To watch Dr. Jared D. Lock speak on defining and living a deliberate culture at DisruptHR Kansas City visit our YouTube channel here.

The JDL Group Organizational Culture Initiatives