What is Culture?

9 out of 10 CEOs believe that improving culture will increase their company's value. What do you do when your CEO tasks you with improving culture?

What is Culture?
Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization's makeup and success; along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like...
I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game...it is the game.

– Louis Gerstner, CEO of IBM

We all think culture is important. Many CEOs are claiming that culture is the ultimate competitive advantage. In fact 9 out of 10 CEOs believe that improving culture would increase their company's value. We also know that culture is the single most important factor to employees with regards to employee satisfaction.

So what do you do when the CEO comes to you and says "I need you to improve our culture"? Do you buy more ping pong tables? More free lunches? Another flavor of kombucha in the kitchen? (Spoiler: You don't)

First, we need to align on a universal definition of culture and how to measure it.

Defining Culture

At Disco, we believe that culture can be defined as the accumulation of:

(A) Actions - all your employee's decisions in the workplace
(B) Beliefs -  the spoken and unspoken values of your organization

In short:

(A)ctions x (B)eliefs = (C)ulture

In Ben Horowitz' book on building company culture What You Do is Who You Are, Ben says “Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.

So how do you build culture when the speed of the modern workplace's collaboration, communication, and decision making is spreading out and speeding up faster than we can buy ping pong tables or feast upon free lunches?

The building blocks of culture

If you believe that culture is the summation of all of your employee's actions and beliefs, then the next logical step is to try and align the way people act with a common set of principles; company and team values.

Picture this, there are two project managers trying to get their projects across the finish line in your organization. How many decisions do they make from start to finish? A hundred? A thousand? They both might get the project finished to spec and on time, but each path can have a dramatic impact on the culture depending on how many of those actions are aligned with your core values. The impact is really felt when you multiply this dichotomy of decisions across the entire organization.

This simplified project timeline shows how even a few key decisions not anchored in core values can lead to harmful outcomes for everybody involved.

In short, the more employees that believe in your values and leverage them to make decisions, the more intentional your culture will be and the more likely the culture will go where you intended it to. Picture your culture like a road trip. You have a destination in mind and your goal is to get all of your employees to the same place. The map with the clearest instructions and guidelines will get more employees there faster with less detours, speed bumps, or breakdowns.

So how can more decisions be based off the core values?


The first step to changing behavior is making them aware of the expected behavior. This means that all employees need to know what the values are and how the values apply to their day to day responsibilities. Every single engineer, product manager, designer, sales person and beyond needs to know what doing their job with Integrity or Collaboration looks like. This means giving them concrete examples of how these beliefs turn into actions in their day to day experience. Some great ways to do this are:

  • Hire for values based behaviors
  • Print out values booklets and distribute to new hires
  • Hold culture brown bags where each team discusses what the values mean to them
  • Upload your values as emojis to Slack
  • Talk about values in weekly or monthly all-hands
  • And our personal favorite, recognition


What gets recognized gets repeated. – Everyone

It's universally understood that celebrating behaviors publicly with genuine enthusiasm will raise awareness and the likelihood for others to exhibit those same behaviors. It's important for big and small actions that are rooted in core values be called out and celebrated by peers, managers, and senior leaders.

Imagine, Julia, an engineering manager reviewing one of her direct report's code. She sees that the engineer went out of his way to make a webpage more accessible for users who are visually impaired. The other engineers on her team may not even notice the code or the reason behind the change, while you see this as a perfect example of an engineer living one of your core values, Inclusive.

This is a moment to be celebrated. To be shared. To be internalized by the entire engineering team. "This is how OUR team is inclusive." Unfortunately, these accomplishments are either overlooked or discussed privately. Just imagine if every engineer thought a little bit harder about being inclusive. It could unlock an entire customer market and have real ramifications on the business' bottom line. That is more likely to happen if those behaviors are celebrated.


Culture is always changing. With every new hire, every new project, the opportunity for culture to shift either positively or negatively is introduced. It's important to implement a real-time understanding of how employees are impacting and contributing to culture.

Each team and company  has culture anchors that embody the type of culture you're striving for. These people can't be diagnosed with manager intuition or feel alone. This introduces too many opportunities for personal biases or professional politics. Using data to understand who is acting in a way that aligns with organizational values and beliefs consistently is how to identify those anchors. It can be difficult to identify these people from pulse surveys or performance reviews. In our experience, the day to day behavior is the best indicator.

Once it's understand who those people are, they can be leveraged for a variety of compounding cultural investments like:

  • Connecting them to recent hires so that new employees are wired into the culture
  • Putting them at the center of organizational change to keep people and culture connected
  • Leveraging their expertise when expanding into new regions or opening new offices so that your culture isn't isolated to certain locations


Once the culture anchors are known, it's important to make sure those people feel like their contributions are valued. Rewards can be so much more than gift cards and are often more impactful if they tap into social or intrinsic motivations. Examples include:

  • Put the values champion on a culture committee or allow them to start one for the value they embody.
  • Talk about their accolades in a monthly all-hands showing that leadership takes notice.
  • Give them a budget to take their team out for lunch, dinner, or an offsite activity.

The important thing here is to pick something that fits your culture and showcases the actions and behaviors that warrants the reward. Connecting rewards to real-life actions vs generalized behavior allows everybody else to internalize what living that value looks like and helps them understand how they need to act to be considered for a reward.

Culture is change

If you've read this far, I trust that you know your journey in understanding, measuring, and improving culture is just beginning. Culture isn't some static thing that you can define once and revisit once a year. It's not an accumulation of employee perks. It's the summation of all of your employee's beliefs and actions. It will take an ongoing investment to make sure culture is headed in your intended direction, but I promise you, the destination is worth it.

Thanks for reading! Please share with other culture enthusiasts :)