If you Google “What is company culture?” you’ll see a wide range of definitions. Some suggest culture is an amalgam of the organisation’s mission, vision, and values. Others emphasise the attitudes, practices, and goals that are shared firmwide.

We respectfully disagree. A company’s culture is defined by the behaviours it rewards, and the behaviours it punishes. And, while culture undeniably can morph organically, it starts from the top.

“Forget slogans and posters. Forget mission statements. Forget culture decks,” writes Jeff Haden in an article for Inc. titled The Only Word That Truly Defines Every Company’s Culture. “Culture is partly what you encourage, but culture is mostly what you permit. What you accept. What you allow. What you let people get away with. What you, as an owner or leader, let yourself get away with.”

Shortly after reading Jeff’s article, I came across a story in the Wall Street Journal entitled WeWork CEO Says Least Engaged Employees Enjoy Working From Home.

“Those who are uberly engaged with the company want to go to the office two-thirds of the time, at least. Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home,” said Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of WeWork, according to the Journal’s story.

Mathrani’s comments make clear what his organisation values. They also raise all sorts of questions about whether the company fails to recognise important contributions from employees who are off the radar screen for one reason or another. They also revealed more about the company culture than the descriptions of the company’s mission and values listed on its website.

Obviously, as a lessor of office space, WeWork has a vested interest in getting people back to the office. But at what cost? We’ve detailed some of the reasons why people prefer working from home, and that many feel so strongly about continuing to do so, that they’ll leave the company if required to return to the office full time.

If culture is what’s rewarded and what’s punished, what happens to the strong performer who loves working from home?

Culture serves as guide rails 

The reason why culture is important is that it creates the guide rails for employee behaviour. A culture steers people in the right direction and discourages them from veering off-piste.

However, like guide rails, a company’s culture won’t prevent some people from trying to take shortcuts.

A strong and healthy culture – one which employees value and protect – will not reward those who veer off the path. Productive but unethical salespeople, high performers who bully their peers, talented but uncommunicative leaders – these are the people who put culture to the test. If leaders make exceptions for these kinds of situations, have rewarded the behaviour, and shouldn’t be surprised when it becomes the norm.

Similarly, the same cultural guide rails can also steer employees toward loftier heights. Open-minded leaders who value feedback are the ones who hear ideas. Confident leaders who give people agency over their work breed problem solvers and entrepreneurs.

Maintaining a prized culture over time can be difficult, especially when it’s tested by crisis or swift growth. However, bearing in mind that culture starts at the top, and is determined by what the organisation consistently rewards, will help you keep your organisation on the high road, even when you need to adapt.

If you’re curious about the health of your company culture right now, use our Culture Check on-demand survey to assess how your team’s doing.