Culture is a fuzzy concept, and as a result, there are probably just as many definitions as people trying to define it. 

Over the past few years of researching and analyzing culture, I've heard it explained as the way work gets done around the office, and also as merely a collection of perks. I tend to gravitate toward the former. Regardless of how it's described, though, every organization has similar objectives: Enhance employee engagement, strengthen employer brand, drive performance, and engrain core principles.

Don't get me wrong. All of these are worthy goals and critical components to high-performing companies. But they can't stand on their own. There is something else far more important that should prelude them -- organizational alignment. 

In a 2018 report, Gallup described alignment as "Everyone, from current and prospective employees and customers to shareholders, industry influencers, and members of the media -- thinks and talks about the company in the same way."

The best way to influence and improve culture should be to create organizational alignment. Then the rest will follow as organic byproducts. Here are the three areas I would target first:

1. Key messages

Imagine your company is a ship adrift and each of your employees has an oar. Without clear marching orders, everyone frantically paddles in opposing directions exhausting themselves as the organization goes nowhere.

Unfortunately, this analogy represents many corporate cultures. Without consistent messaging on who the company is, what it does, its goals, and how it adds value, everyone will default to their own definition. And, I'll tell you right now, those definitions will be conflicting. Conflicting leads to confusing, and a "ship" full of confused employees won't make any progress toward its objectives.

However, if you can create and consistently communicate clear messages, the unity and collective force will be unstoppable. 

In the words of author Patrick Lencioni (best known for The Five Dysfunctions of a Team), "If you could get all the people in the organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time."

It's amazing what a company can accomplish when it's not fighting itself. 

2. Leadership and employee behavior

One of the most significant drivers of performance is recognition. Every leader inside your organization should know what constitutes a successful, high-performing employee and possess the authority to reward those behaviors consistently. 

Also, a company's leaders set the tone for the rest of the organization. They should model the desired behavior and embody the culture. According to Gallup, "Actions always speak louder than words, and the most influential messages are conveyed by leaders' actions." 

3. Systems and the way work gets done 

Stopping is harder than starting. As a result, new systems are implemented while the old runs in the background. Unless you clearly communicate how work should get done, old messages and values will resurface, causing organizational drag. 

People are creatures of habit. Unless you fully commit to the new culture, they'll revert to what they know. 

Complex cultures can be the result of years' worth of tweaks, workarounds, and conflicting messages. Imagine an organizational game of telephone. Every once in a while, we have to unpack our morphed systems and ensure they're not full of unnecessary steps.

It's true that culture is key to unlocking your organization's full potential. But before you can increase employee engagement, attract top talent, and boost performance, there first has to be alignment across the organization.  

Published on: Jul 31, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.