Work Culture and Values — A Summary

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Robin Nicholas
Robin Nicholas Communications, USA


Work culture is about how people experience their work, and ideally, how people can flourish in their work. [1] People experience their culture by building upon three key dynamics: personal relationships with their colleagues; more frequent, informal, personal conversations; and greater opportunities to be heard and contribute — all while maintaining the integrity and safety of their work.

Values lie at the core of any work culture. Ideally, an organization’s structure, practices, and polices serve and support these values, and each worker’s experience, desires, and growth reflect these values. When these values are met, the work culture succeeds and advances; when these values are not met, the needs of the culture become apparent and the necessary next steps are revealed.

The big picture

To consider the work culture, we need to look the many ways that culture expresses itself. Work culture encompasses so much, so broadly, that it is sometimes difficult to grasp all at once. Perhaps it is helpful to start with the big picture and simplify it from there.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines culture as “… the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and…it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” At work, two elements of this definition are key — ways of living [and working] together, and value systems.

Looking at culture another way, Nhlanhla Mkhize describes it more simply, “As human beings, we cannot act without employing background knowledge — that knowledge that informs our decisions. Some call it Culture.” [3] This background knowledge remains intimate for each of us; it is intrinsic and experienced and informs all of our decisions, both personal and professional. As a result, we know our culture, even if we can’t always articulate it. [4] Workers will often demonstrate this background knowledge throughout their work and daily conversations.

And finally, we know our culture because we know the core values that form the foundation of our culture. Frank Rose, drawing upon the work of Philip Tetlock and others, defines core values as, “Moral imperatives that we are unwilling to compromise,” [5] This can include family, community, dignity, and respect, as well as the core values we experience at work. When we are true to our core values personally and professionally, we remain true to ourselves and our culture grows. [6]

The whole culture — The whole person

Any broad, consideration of culture carries with it strengths and flaws. In some traditional approaches to work culture, people consider research, safety programs, directives, work practices, regulations, equipment, etc. All of these approaches are developed through our mind, logic, and intellect. First, we objectively observe our work culture and our work practices; then we determine what we need to do; and finally, we take action to complete our work. But is this enough? An intellectual approach to culture is essential, but it also carries a certain risk when it becomes the only approach. Because in our effort to be objective, if we end up objectifying the work culture, we also risk objectifying workers. Workers become “resources” instead of people. [4]

Reaching our full potential at work requires that workers not be viewed as a resource. Instead, workers must be viewed in their entirety. The intellect is essential for engaging one’s culture — but in the end the work culture must be engaged and implemented by human beings who are much more than intellect. Each of us is an amazing combination of mind, body, emotions, intuition, relationships, values, and culture; and as a whole person, each of us responds to respect, dignity, personal excellence, and well-being at work and throughout our lives. [4]

A culture of passion and well-being — “I love my job!”

People know their culture. They live it; they experience it. When we are strengthened by our culture, we come together. In order for a culture to grow in ways that serve its members, it has to promote the core values of that culture. This in turn promotes the work culture and its members’ well-being. [7] Räsänen and Anttonen have offered a definition of well-being that serves a healthy work culture: “Well-being is the flourishing of workers so that they can achieve their full potential for both their own benefit and that of the organization.” [8] Indeed, in order to flourish and reach well-being, we must include and then expand beyond our intellect and embrace all of who we are — and if we are fortunate — with passion. [4]

During conversations with workers, some people would openly declare, “I love my job!” Their response was spontaneous and totally unsolicited. This declaration certainly was not unanimous; several workers experience real conflict and pain in their jobs. Yet, when people were asked to describe their work, many became animated, enthusiastically laying out what their work meant to them and how it supported their group. This passion for one’s work goes beyond objectivity and is a true gift to any work culture.

Many hold the belief that once people are successful they become happy. But as Sonja Lyubomirsky and others point out, the opposite is actually true — people who are happy become successful. [9] Thomas Wright and Russel Cropanzano describe a similar dynamic; people who experience well-being bring more to their work, [10] providing insight and contributing to something larger than themselves. [6]

 A work culture of relationships, community, and a way-of-life

When we build relationships, we build a workplace environment where workers can influence their work. Building relationships is crucial. Chinnock tells us, “The intangibles of trust …and…friendships can be more potent than logic and more compelling than evidence.” [11] Work is an intensely social process that depends upon relationships. It relies upon vibrant partnerships, collaborations, and above all personal contact and conversations. [4]

As relationships grow, communities can arise from the common ground of a shared culture, personal knowledge, and the values that individuals carry with them. Martin Mulligan and others describe how community often begins as a sense of place at home or at work. But for many people, community grows beyond location to include relationships where people come together for face-to-face encounters. This sense of community eventually grows into a way-of-life — with attitudes, practices, and traditions that people hold as common values, where people come together to engage each other and seek out their common experiences. [12] Community as a way-of-life is not static — it is alive and dynamic. It grows and changes as people learn and grow, expanding their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live and work. When the workplace becomes community as a way-of-life, we have the opportunity to discover the relationships that evolve into and are the foundation of a creative and growing work culture. [4]

The work culture experience

During many conversations, people described how they liked their experience of their work, or they described what was missing, what they wanted to experience during their work. The key element throughout is that they were describing their experience. Indeed, the potential gift of a work culture is not how it is analyzed, but how it is experienced. [1]

In this context, the work culture becomes the whole experience at work — it is overarching, encompassing, holistic, and pervasive. Within this experience, safety and health become consequences of the total work culture. If we talk separately about a safety culture, we risk implying a division between work and safety. Similarly, instead of striving for work-life balance, we simply want a balanced life — where we can experience the entirety of our lives, including our families and friends, our values, and our work. Our experience of culture unites us; it brings the different parts of the whole together. [1]

A creative work culture where people can try new things

Large organizations need certain dynamics to sustain themselves — therefore they provide structure, some form of hierarchy, and conformity. The question is: What in this structured work environment helps people get to that creative breakthrough, that aha moment when the next great insight occurs that furthers their work? Creativity is an individual process while many organizations require a certain amount of conformity, evolving into a more regulatory bureaucracy. As a result, creativity and the aha moment are pushed aside.

Creativity goes directly to the work culture and one’s overall experience and job satisfaction. Together, creativity and bureaucracy can be a challenge, but they do not have to be mutually exclusive. [13] Building creativity into the work process is worthwhile to enhance the work culture.

A work culture that grows through open communication

When we build open, personal communication between people, we build relationships and an environment where people influence their work. Quality work, safety and support are all intensely social processes that depend upon relationships. They rely upon vibrant partnerships, collaborations, and above all personal contact between people in all areas of the workplace. [6]

When people request more relationship, they also ask for more communication. This is not the communication of information in one direction, but rather communication where each person can express themselves and be heard. People need the human side, to talk in person. Simply, communication and relationship always work together.

The challenge of hierarchy and structure

Some form of hierarchy is found in many organizations, even informal ones. In considering our traditional approach to work culture, it is helpful to also consider our traditional organization structure. This structure is often depicted as a pyramid, illustrating a stratified vertical, top-down hierarchy. This hierarchy has many advantages. However, this stratified structure also carries risks because a large part of it is based upon the downward flow of controls and directives; it addresses formal regulations and policies, but it often does not address the whole worker and their emotional and psychological well-being. [6]

The Whitehall II study has looked at the effect of the traditional, stratified organization and management structure upon worker health and well-being. This study of British civil servants has been conducted for 20 years with some remarkable results.

What the Whitehall II study revealed was that a stratified, top-down management structure — if left solely unto itself — risks creating an unhealthy workplace, because the lower a person is in the hierarchy, the greater the stress. This means that workers at the bottom feel the greatest amount of stress. This stress can be constant, resulting in significant health and safety consequences. [14]

In the potential stress environment of high demand and low control, it becomes our job to increase worker influence. When we seek workers’ input, knowledge, and values, workers can experience a sense of control within their work. With this dynamic, interactions increase and stress decreases — relationships develop, trust develops, and the work community grows. The result: people take care of each other, and management and community are balanced. [4]


The overall work culture can take many forms based upon the organization and the people who work. Much of this results from the consistent, unified vision of supporting workers as they do their job. But within this overall culture, core values are either being satisfied or unmet. Meeting these core values is where the next steps can be found to help the work culture to grow and enhance each person’s work experience and satisfaction.


  1. Nicholas R. The experience of work. Paper presented at: International Commission on Occupational Health. Dublin, Ireland. 2018.
  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Universal declaration on cultural diversity: the general conference. 2001.
  3. Mkhize N. A primer: doing research in traditional cultures. DOE Human Subjects Research Database Web Site. [Internet] 2005. 12. Available at:
  4. Nicholas R. Management, culture and community — creating an environment of well-being. 1st International Conference on Accident Prevention. Korean Occupational Safety and Health Agency. Seoul, South Korea. 2010. pp. 70-74.
  5. Rose F. Don’t mess with my sacred values. New York Times. 2013.
  6. Nicholas R. Beyond the intellect — communicating core values to support worker well-being. Paper presented at: Wellbeing at Work. Copenhagen, Denmark. 2014.
  7. Nicholas R. Worker values, culture, and community — values communication that goes directly to workers and supports well-being. Towards Better Work and Well-being. Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. Helsinki, Finland. 2010. p. 87-91
  8. Räsänen T, Anttonen H. Definition of well-being at work and the various categories for evaluation of work activities. Paper presented at: Towards Better Work and Well-being. Helsinki, Finland. 2010.
  9. Lyubominsky S, King L, Diener E. The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin. 2005. 1331(6). p. 803-855
  10. Wright T, Cropanzano R. Psychological well-being and job satisfaction as predictors of job performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 2000. 5(1).
  11. Chinnock P. Knowledge translation toolkit: a resource for researchers. [Internet]. Available at: 2008.
  12. Mulligan M, Humphery K, James P, Christopher S, Smith P, and Welch N. Creating community: celebrations, arts, and well-being within and across local communities. Melbourne: RMIT Print Services. 2006. 176 p.
  13. Nicholas, R. Well-being, creativity, and bureaucracy — supporting worker well-being through creativity in the workplace. Paper presented at: Well-being at Work – Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2016.
  14. Ferrie J, editor. Work, stress, and health: the Whitehall II study. Council of Civil Service Unions/Cabinet Office, UK. 2004. 26 p.

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