Beyond Culture

by David Heitman

In his landmark book, Beyond Culture, Edward T Hall suggests that the three characteristics of culture are: 1) that it is not innate, but learned; 2) the various facets of culture are interrelated and thus impact each other; and 3) culture is a shared experience that defines the boundaries of a group.

This was highly prescient stuff back in 1976, and companies have only recently awakened to the fact that these dynamics can be explored and leveraged to intentionally foster corporate culture with not only employees but customers as well. In fact, the great company cultures that come immediately to mind—Apple, Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton, Chipotle, REI—all understand that the customer is the co-creator of culture. Starbucks, for example, has accrued meaning and significance for its customers based on how they use and experience this all important “third place” in their lives. How many great ideas, new businesses, and back-of-the-napkin inventions had their genesis at a Starbucks?

Unfortunately,  many companies have killed meaningful culture through ham-handed, top-down mission statements and motivational posters. ( is a refreshing alternative to this silliness.) To be honest, I’m not sure that I could give you a formula for getting company culture going. It can be cultivated and fostered, but not fabricated from thin air or designed by committee. Efforts to “be authentic” usually kill authenticity. Instead, company culture arises from visionary leaders who take the time to listen to dedicated front-line employees, and then find creative ways to reinforce, recognize and reward actions that reinforce the desired culture.

Perhaps the path forward lies in Hall’s three elements:

1) Despite the risks of imposing culture, it is still necessary for company leaders to say what exactly is most important, and then be ready to teach but not micromanage the implications. Empowering people to live out a mission beats a policy manual any day.

2) Realize that opening the door for cultural change will—and should—affect everything. Do not be surprised when unintended consequences arise. Hopefully there will more positive, serendipitous consequences than bad, confusing ones.

3) Encourage a sense of self-definition by association with your brand and organizations. For most employees and customers, that requires being honest, ethical and making a positive difference in the world.

Culture is a living organism, and thus an evolutionary one. Given sufficient integrity, authenticity and creativity, a company’s culture can not only prosper, but change the world.