What Is Workplace Culture? Tony Hsieh Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Delivering Happiness" by Tony Hsieh. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is workplace culture? How does it affect a company’s success?

In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh explains that fostering a healthy workplace culture is essential in developing a successful business. Culture is not something that can be concretely defined, but the two most important aspects of a company’s culture are employee behavior and belief, which Hsieh explains more in-depth.

Learn more about what workplace culture is and its importance.

Defining Workplace Culture

According to Hsieh, a healthy workplace culture is one of the most important elements of a successful business. While he never provides a concrete definition of workplace culture, we’ve used his discussions on culture to define it as follows: Culture is the standard behaviors and beliefs that the employees of a company maintain both in business settings and in their personal lives. 

For example, many companies nurture the cultural belief that customer satisfaction is a priority, as well as the belief that employees should behave respectfully toward colleagues and customers. These behaviors become cultural workplace habits, and employees start to apply them in their personal lives too, considering other people’s needs before their own and treating everyone respectfully.

It’s important to have a culture that reflects your business’s mission so that your employees will habitually behave appropriately to advance that mission. For example, Google’s mission is to make information universally accessible. Behaviors and beliefs that fit this mission include encouraging curiosity and valuing transparency. Employees with these traits will approach their jobs with open minds and determination to innovate and improve information accessibility, advancing Google’s mission. However, if Google’s culture didn’t reflect its mission, instead prioritizing profit over customer satisfaction or accessibility, employees might suggest and implement policies counter to the mission (such as putting up paywalls).

What is Workplace Culture? A Disputed Definition

It’s not surprising that Hsieh doesn’t provide a concrete definition for culture in Delivering Happiness, despite the importance of culture throughout the book. Culture occupies a nebulous place in the business world: Everyone knows that culture’s important, but no one’s sure how to define it.

While there’s no consensus on culture’s precise definition, most people agree it has two components: employee behavior and belief. Some argue that employee behavior is the true indicator of culture. As long as employees behave in a way that supports the company’s culture and mission, it doesn’t matter what they personally believe about that mission. This perspective also posits that the founders of a company can dictate culture: If employee behavior comprises culture, then changing employee behavior through incentives and penalizations can also change the culture.

Others focus only on the belief aspect of culture. They argue that as long as employees believe in the company and its mission, they’ll behave in ways that support it. This perspective says belief, and thus culture, stems from the employees of a company and can’t be dictated by the founders. Incentives and penalizations can alter behavior, but the employees’ beliefs will ultimately determine how they act.

Hsieh’s idea of culture is the most comprehensive, acknowledging both the behavior of employees and their beliefs as important factors in achieving a company’s mission. This is fitting given that people are composed of both their beliefs and behaviors, and the two are interlinked: for instance, certain beliefs encourage certain behaviors. Thus, aiming to influence just one of these factors through workplace culture is arguably reductive.

The Importance of Protecting a Healthy Culture

According to Hsieh, a company’s culture grows organically from its employees. As such, you must hire people who improve and uphold the desired culture. Employees who don’t uphold the company’s culture can change or damage that culture. 

Hsieh says most businesses encounter this problem because they hire employees that’ll bring them high profits without considering how these employees will impact the company’s culture. Most of these employees only focus on making money, rather than supporting their coworkers and the company. This influx of money-focused employees degrades the culture from a supportive, enjoyable environment to a miserable one.

What Is Workplace Culture? Tony Hsieh Explains

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  • Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's guide to workplace happiness
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  • An exploration of the psychology behind happiness and why it leads to success

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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