These days the headlines are full with talk of culture - and it's not happy talk. At Facebook it's described as "disconnected", a culture in which the company and its 2.2. billion users don't see eye-to-eye and neither it seems do its dozen of so senior executives with the rest of their 25,000 employees. At the L.A. Times the dominant story has been a "toxic" culture, which in a mere year and a half has seen three leaders, three fitful restructurings, and charges ranging from sabotage to sexual harassment. Uber's culture has been called as "combative", United Airlines' labeled "dismissive" and "insincere", Electronic Arts as "evil", and the NFL as "out of touch." Ouch.

Though we tend to accept these descriptions at face value, consider the possibility that they are wrong - not wrong in the sense that the facts are false, but wrong in a far more serious way. What if it isn't the culture that's to blame at these and a growing number of other organizations? What if instead it's the absence of culture?

How We Misunderstand Culture

In our day-to-day exchanges, there are signs that we don't really understand culture. At its etymological core, culture means to 'actively fostering growth'. A quick stroll through the dictionary amplifies the idea, offering descriptions such as 'to prepare', 'to tend, with the intent to reap', and 'to develop'. It would be hard to make the case that doing any of these things would lead intentionally or even accidentally to toxicity, dismissiveness, or disconnection. And really, could you imagine any leader or leading organization that sought to 'foster', 'improve', 'elevate', or 'sustain' (all related meanings) consciously choosing a combative or evil approach?

When you understand culture's actual meaning, the whole idea of culture can't help but shift, including our views about what it is and what it helps us to do.

What We Should Not Mistake Culture For: Problem Solving

Culture isn't the same as the organization or the business around which culture exists. We often cast the purpose of companies in terms of problem solving. But to solve problems takes people. Whenever you bring people together, you have on your hands something bigger than a problem solving mechanism. What you really have is a living organism, one made up of a group of individuals that depend on a commonality in the larger sense to sustain. That commonality is the raw material out of which a culture takes shape and grows.

Many organizations miss the distinction. They all too quickly seek to create a system around the problem-solution dynamic. Only later do some come to recognize that complex humans are at the center of the dynamic and try to retrofit qualities into the workplace that acknowledge the human element. Sometimes this reverse engineering works. More often the effort is halfhearted and the culture woefully limps along, never quite manifesting into something true or powerful. In the worst cases the whole effort is blatantly insincere, and soon the drama and the headlines follow. Pure and simple, culture isn't a machine built for uniform problem solving. And it isn't an add-on or something you "get to later". Culture is foundational, and when treated as such, it's a competitive advantage of superpower proportions.

How We Can Begin To Change Things

Establishing culture has a different goal and requires a different approach. And one simple question reveals this: Why? As thought leader and author of the bestselling book Start With Why Simon Sinek says, everyone has a "why". If you think about it, culture really begins with finding out if our whys overlap, how our collective skills enable us to pursue why together, and then deciding to collaborate in the pursuit of collective why. Sinek argues that out of such exploration we derive shared values and arrive at the necessary behaviors that together allow culture to take shape. As he puts it: Values x Behavior = Culture. Everything else, that is to say, all the "whats" we typically spend so much time focused on like our products, titles, and compensation schemes follows. When we think about it in reverse, we risk losing sight of culture.

The Promise Of Cultural Change

While the headlines often favor the ugly, there's a lot of good happening out there these days and a focus on culture is the common catalyst. A case in point is Microsoft. By its own admission, decades of simply solving problems in an attempt to keep its products dominant caused Microsoft to lose sight of its customers and itself. When CEO Satya Nadella came on the scene in 2014 using words like empathy, accessibility, and humility to describe his vision for Microsoft and his plan to make it a powerhouse again, outsiders guffawed. How, the critics scoffed, could culture drive profit and loss, you know, those things that matter most? A short 3 and a half years later the critics are largely mute. As TechCrunch put it, under Nadella Microsoft "has reversed its fortunes and returned to being a growth stock after stagnating for nearly a decade." Microsoft is far form alone.

In roughly the same time period, Google too has changed course, turning its view inward seeking a deeper truth about who they are as a culture and where they want to go. The effort, known as Project Oxygen, has been a shocking revelation of what Google's employees collectively believe to be the most important elements for success - things like 'being a good coach' and 'possessing insights into others', rather than the more anticipated 'being a good programmer'.

Soft stuff? Call it that if you like. But Microsoft, Amazon, WalMart, Google and more aren't stopping at the revelation about what truly makes them strong. They're using it to inform "how" and the "what" comes next to keep them leading decades into the future. Are you ready to bet against them? A safer wager is to bet on culture.