This week, Merriam-Webster dictionary declared "culture" their word of the year. For those who are curious, what this actually means is that the word culture had a 15% year-over-year increase in look-ups on M-W's website, which is more than any other word in 2014. Merriam-Webster's press release read as follows: "This year's list was compiled by analyzing the top lookups in the online dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com and focusing on the words that showed the greatest increase in lookups this year as compared to last year. The results, based on approximately 100 million lookups a month, shed light on topics and ideas that sparked the nation's interest in 2014."

In an effort to explain why they thought this word was looked up more in 2014 than in prior years, Merriam-Webster noted that, "In years past, lookups for the word culture spiked in the fall, as students encountered the word in titles and descriptions of courses and books, but this year, lookups have moved from seasonal to persistent, as culture has become a term frequently used in discussions of social phenomena." I have to admit that while I personally have massive passion for the topic of "culture," specifically, company culture, I was really surprised with this news.

The main reason I am surprised is because having worked around this subject for more than two decades, I still find a great deal of tentativeness when it comes to this topic. Most people will quickly acknowledge the value of an aligned and focused culture in an organization, but when it comes to what that means, what it looks like and how you build and sustain a great culture--fewer ideas are offered and there is much more uncertainty than you would expect for a topic everyone agrees is important. So, after hearing the news from Merriam-Webster, I am really encouraged that at a macro level, we are seeing a positive shift in people seeking to understand "culture" better even if is not just company culture.

As Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster explained: "Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness. And it's efficient: we talk about the 'culture' of a group rather than saying 'the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors' of that group. So we think that it may be the increased use of this newer sense of the word culture that is catching people's attention and driving the volume of lookups."

During a career filled with giving this topic a great deal of thought, time and attention, I have found that all of us think about culture a bit differently, and in fact, if you ask ten people in your organization to define your company culture, I am positive you will find ten variations in most cases.

Diversity is a good thing and we all experience the world through our unique lenses, yet when it comes to culture, I have found that when I am in a place where the team is on the same page about what is important and how we work together and why we are working in the company--success is realized more easily. Similarly, when I have been in a company where the actions of the leaders conflict with the stated values and culture, the outcomes are usually disappointing and turnover is higher.

Thinking differently about culture is not necessarily troublesome or wrong, but I believe there is massive upside to be realized by investing time to understand who you are as an organization and what binds you together.

As is the case with art, there is no such thing as the one "right" culture for your organization--there are so many possibilities of what patterns, behaviors, values, norms and traditions can catapult your organization to success. So how do you know what culture is right for your organization? How do you know how to build, grow and reinforce the best possible culture for your team? Well, for those of you who are thinking about this and for those of you who looked up the definition and still feel unclear, I hope some of these questions will help:

  • Is the culture in your company today the one you would choose if you could start over?
  • Do you invest as much or more time highlighting what is great about your culture as you do calling out where it is off the mark?
  • Can you name the top 3-5 cultural ambassadors in your company who embody exactly what you want as a company? What are they doing that embodies the culture? How are you showcasing them to the rest of the organization?
  • Can you name 3 things that you and your leaders do every day that reinforce the culture?
  • When you survey your employees--do you specifically ask about culture and its meaning to the employees?
  • Do you think your employees will respond more to your actions or words around your culture?

As you begin to prepare your organization for 2015, I encourage you to think about your culture and how powerfully it can support success in your organization. Once you feel you have a good understanding of the pillars of your culture and who embodies the key elements, find ways to have these ambassadors spread their cultural mojo around the company and go hire more people like them.

The fact that culture is the word of the year is a great sign that we are raising our understanding of one of the most powerful weapons in your organization and one that costs you virtually nothing but time, thought and action to create.