There’s been a lot of chatter about company cultures recently. Unfortunately, that includes lots of bad examples.

  • Google employees are arguing about gender bias.
  • Airlines have opened up a debate about what enables great customer service.
  • Restaurants are starting to figure out that the roots of food contamination often start with how their workers think of their role in the company.
  • These events have increased the realization that businesses are more like organisms than machines. They’re based on how people believe and behave as a group.

Many people seem to think that “culture” is just a thing that happens to societies and very large groups. That’s it’s something that is unchanged for generations, and therefore outside anyone’s control.

But culture also emerges when you have just a handful of people interacting. It describes what the group considers normal for making decisions, communicating, rewarding and punishing. On the other hand, group goals describe what they’re trying to do together, and processes describe how they go about it.

The culture, usually unwritten, describes how individuals come together as a team to achieve something.

As a leader in business, your role is to think about and design these things. I would argue that culture is the foundation, because it enables goals and processes. It’s not an accidental by-product.

Perhaps you think that culture is too large for you to impact. That’s not true; you just have to scale your efforts appropriately.

Few of us could attempt to change the culture of the country. Examples like Nelson Mandela or Abraham Lincoln don’t come around that often.

Maybe you’re not the head of your company, so changing its culture seems impossible. If you’re more than three layers away from the top, that could be true – but it depends on how audacious you choose to be.

As a leader, though, you have people who are looking to your leadership to help achieve some kind of goal. As owner, department head or even organizer of a meetup group, you’re doing this because you want the group to get something done.

So here are the key questions that will help you to create a powerful and enduring culture:

  • Who are the group(s) who need to work well together?
  • What decisions need to be made, and by whom?
  • What communication paths need to work well?
  • What are the values you’ll need to establish and reinforce?
  • What enables your people to care about each other?
  • What behaviors need to be encouraged or discouraged?
  • To what degree will this be stable for five or 10 years or even more?

Then, your job as leader is to ensure that the systems don’t get in the way of the culture. This can be challenging when government regulations or the larger organization imposes rules that get in the way. But as the leader, your job is to find an appropriate path.

Your primary role is to live and breathe the culture in every interaction. You might have your mission and values written down someplace, but without constant reinforcement that doesn’t matter. Every meeting, every email, every passing comment will be used as a model for what’s acceptable and rewarded in your organization.

What you’re trying to do is to create a human organism that is productive and stable. Sure, your company might be growing like crazy, but that doesn’t mean you’re redesigning its culture every week. In fact, a stable culture will enable the growth you’re seeking.

At the end of the day, you’re looking to ingrain culture so deeply that people don’t think it was designed. They just know how to work well within it, giving you their motivation and productivity.

This article was first published in BizWest.