We all understand how important it is to have a strong culture in a strong work environment. Yet sometimes company culture can be hard to define, and even harder to influence.

Spend a few days at any company and you quickly pick up on its culture. Intangibles like its values, goals, and leadership styles are all indicators but also whether there are colorful beanbags or upholstered chairs in the common areas can also speak volumes.

And while these are easily understandable cultural signs, they can also be deceptive. What really makes a culture is what can't easily be seen. Just like an iceberg, only the smallest sliver of your culture is above the surface. Below is the rest, the 90 percent of the behaviors and values that actually determine whether that culture is helping a company or hindering it. And because they're hard to see, they're also hard to manage.

That's why it's difficult to put your finger on what's going wrong once it begins. It's why a company can sink if it doesn't heed cultural problems. The bottom of the iceberg is what makes or breaks companies.

A good place to start understanding and managing your company's culture is by asking yourself these three questions:

1. How are managers participating in your culture?

The iceberg model stems from early anthropologists' work on country cultures. The tip of the iceberg, they explained, is what's encountered when a new place is visited, for example its music, food, architecture. However, these are all highly informed by what we don't initially see -- the bottom of the iceberg -- which includes things like family norms, gender roles, and perspectives on self in relationship to the community. To truly understand another culture, the anthropologists argued, it was necessary to speak the local language and take part in everyday rituals because without that level of immersion, it's impossible to grasp the values and beliefs that shape how people act.

That starting point is the same with a company's culture, except that it needs to go a step further. Participating in employees' everyday tasks doesn't just help managers understand what really drives their culture, but it also helps them be deliberate in forming it. Consciously modeling behavior is one of the most critical steps managers can take.

2. What behaviors are being rewarded?

Consider the rightfully famous Netflix PowerPoint deck that explains, among other things, how the company creates its unique culture. The first slide contains these words: "Enron, whose leaders went to jail and which went into bankruptcy, had these values described in its lobby: Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence. (These values were not, however, what was really valued at Enron.)"

The point Netflix is making is that mission statements, and the cultures they're meant to create, are only as reliable as the systems that underpin them. If employees feel rewards come from behaviors that are potentially destructive to the company -- such as secrecy, and instant gratification over long-term success -- then they will choose those behaviors. But the culture Netflix institutes rewards adult-like, responsible behavior from A-players whose skills fit the company's needs and that has led to its success.

3. Is there a gap between your ideal and actual culture?

When I started my first job in the 1990s , culture wasn't top of mind. Status, corner offices and corporate titles were a company's selling points. Culture was talked about, but it wasn't crucial. Times have changed. More women in the workplace, the advent of Millennials, and the impact of tech culture on the rest of the business world have turned culture into a critical distinction, a reflection of a company's reward and value system that employees take seriously when accepting a job or staying with a company.

So, in a relatively short time, culture's stock has risen. But that creates a problem when plenty of companies are still playing catch up. HR managers peg culture and engagement as their top challenge, according to a study by Deloitte University Press. But a recent Gallup poll found that just 27 percent of employees strongly believe in their companies' values. It also uncovered that too often leaders choose values that define their ideal culture without really considering whether those values resonate with employees or even will influence how work gets done. That creates confusion and that leads to less commitment and engagement.

To overcome the gap, cultures need to be clearly defined, quantified and intentionally managed.

Cultural cues are only a small part of a larger cultural fabric. When an organization is running smoothly, you don't understand how crucial these underlying cultural aspects are. It's only when things are going very badly that their importance becomes clear.

Published on: Apr 4, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.