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The Simple Formula for Culture

Updated: May 13, 2020

Written by CultureCon Guest Blogger, Derrick Van Mell

Culture = (Etiquette + Ethics) X Personality

“Our culture is so bad because I’m a jerk.” - CEO of DynaMegaCorp

50% of the time of when people say, the culture here sucks, they really mean my boss is a jerk or I don’t like how this place is run, meaning communication is poor and priorities are unclear. These complaints relate to culture, but they’re not all the same thing.

So, what is corporate culture exactly? And why is it important really?

Corporate culture is how a group of people treats other groups of people, both within and outside their organization. It’s their collective pattern of behavior.

Corporate culture directly affects productivity in a big way: it shapes the difference between a group and a team, between reluctant cooperation and energetic collaboration. It’s measured by weak or strong morale.

Archaeologists study the artifacts of cultures, their art, buildings, religion and tools, but serious managers study the rules of behaviors, which we explore below: 

  • Etiquette

  • Ethics

  • Personality

You can glimpse your culture in the written rules of behavior, like your mission and value statements. But the reality of how people treat each other is often very different. 

Etiquette: Guten Tag!

My wife worked at a bank in Berlin and every morning everyone shook each other’s hand. If Hans and Fritz had been at odds the day before, this simple display of manners got them to interact again and not infect others with their mood.

Manners smooth the natural rough edges of human interaction. We say please and thank you, open doors for others and make small talk so we can start each interaction off on the right foot. Manners let us catch our breaths before blurting out something snide.

Are people at your workplace polite? Does the boss set a good example? Spend a week being extra polite and watch your life get easier.

Ethics: Not just for dead Greek philosophers

All deceased persons in the preparation room shall be treated with proper care and dignity and shall be properly covered at all times.

This is section II-4 from the National Funeral Director Association’s Professional Code of Conduct (revised 2008). These leaders have thought carefully about the ethics specific to their field. It’s not a poster of platitudes. 

Too many codes basically say, “Don’t lie, cheat, steal or harass anyone.” Let’s hope we all obey the law and the Golden Rule already.

Ethics is the practical application of morality. It’s a guideline for navigating reasonable differences about right and wrong. Reflect on times when you’ve had legitimate differences with customers, staff or vendors. How would your responses have changed if the situation was even just a little different?

Personality: The five spectra of us being us

These five characteristics are adapted from well-established psychological theory about individual personality (Big Five personality traits). 

Structure:                  Hierarchical ----- Consensus

Risk tolerance:          Low ----- High

Competitiveness:      Be the best we can be  ----- Success means winning

Creativity:              Traditional ----- Cutting edge

Sociability:                Focus on relationships ----- Focus on performance

Where would you place your organization on these five ranges? Neither end is right, and it’s hard to evaluate yourself. It takes guts, but you might ask your staff, customers and vendors their opinions.

Personality isn’t a rule of behavior, per se, but it colors all those behaviors. That’s why our culture formula is...

(Etiquette + Ethics) X Personality. 

How do we change or protect our culture?

Tribalism is part of human nature: any group will eventually think of themselves as superior—and then strongly resist threats to that identity. Yes, we all need to feel we belong to something (I Hope You’re Happy), but if that feeling gets too strong, our organization becomes isolated and insensitive.

Culture is created by example, circumstance, and structures of power and reward. You can change the reward structures pretty easily, but to change culture, you also need patience:

  • Emphasize good manners

  • Update your code of ethics for the dilemmas specific to your industry

  • Share stories (The Nine Stories…) that illustrate the behaviors you value

You can’t force changes in your group's personality. If you’re run by a dozen 60-year-old curmudgeons, adding a Foosball table won’t make a whit of difference. But you can change by hiring outside of your demographic—and then letting them be them. 

Culture is a mirror of compassion

I’m talkin’ ‘bout the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. – Michael Jackson


Compassion is what makes the difference between a good or bad culture. We’re back to the Golden Rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated. You want people to say about your company, those people are really nice. You can trust them to do a great job.

Change is up to you, even if you’re not the boss. Rule 1: Don’t be a jerk. Rule 2: Be attentive, patient, kind, forgiving, generous and humble. In short, be the mature adult you want others to be. 


Derrick Van Mell is the CEO of the Center for Management Terms & Practices ( He’s a published author and international speaker. He loves to help people work together on the things that matter most.

1 Comment

Scott Romero
Scott Romero
Sep 05, 2021

This is ggreat

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