Workplace culture is a buzzword that echoes through boardrooms, LinkedIn posts, and management seminars. Yet, beneath the glossy surface, many fail to grasp its true essence. Culture isn’t a mere collection of free snacks, coffee machines, or casual Fridays. It’s not about the colourful office walls or the annual team-building retreats. True culture resides in the unscripted moments—the hallway conversations, the way decisions are made behind closed doors, and the unwritten rules that govern behaviour.

Culture reveals itself in the small acts of kindness, the respectful disagreements, and the commitment to excellence. It’s the trust built over coffee breaks, the laughter echoing through empty hallways, and the resilience that keeps us going when challenges mount. It is something that can’t always been seen but can certainly be felt.

Culture is often described as “the way we do things around here.” But in your organisation, is it merely a set of stated values or something deeper? In reality, culture is not your company brand or the eloquent speeches delivered at meetings. It’s actual day-to-day behaviour—the choices made, the actions taken, and the habits formed when the spotlight isn’t on.

Why is culture misunderstood?

Culture is one of those words that is freely used by employees and organisations alike. Employees can be heard saying, “I want to work somewhere that has a good culture” – but what does that actually mean? Similarly, some businesses will promote their ‘family culture’, but fail to articulate the actions and behaviours that drive this. Here are just three of the reasons that culture is misunderstood:

1. Superficiality: People often reduce culture to a checklist of perks. They mistake bean bags for camaraderie and ping pong tables for innovation. But culture isn’t a prop; it’s the heartbeat of an organisation.

2. Lack of Awareness: Leaders may promote their company’s values, but do they truly understand how those values translate into everyday actions? Culture isn’t about what’s printed on posters; it’s about the behaviours that often go unnoticed.

3. Invisible Threads: Culture weaves itself into the fabric of an organisation when no one is watching. It’s the manager who listens empathetically, the team member who shares credit, and the quiet courage to challenge the status quo. It is also the team that decides on their own accord to cook meals for a co-worker going through a challenging time.

The hidden culture

Imagine a company where the CEO praises transparency but reprimands those who speak up. Or a team that claims collaboration but secretly hoards information. These contradictions define the unseen culture—the real culture. It’s the unwritten pact that says, “This is how we really operate” but this is not promoted or discussed. It is certainly not on the glossy brochures.

In an organisational context, hidden culture refers to the unseen norms, assumptions and beliefs that shape behaviour. While visible culture includes observable practices (such as dress code or rituals), hidden culture operates at a deeper level.

Your workplace culture thrives in the unseen moments—the decisions made when no one is watching. It’s how you handle mistakes, bad news, promotions, and terminations. For example, transparent cultures encourage truth-telling even when it challenges authority, collaborative workplaces don’t elevate selfish individuals and innovative cultures nurture breakthrough ideas rather than stifling them prematurely.

Examples of hidden culture include:

Hidden Culture example

How this plays out in the workplace

Tacit Assumptions: Unspoken beliefs about how things should be done.

Office Meeting Dynamics:

Imagine a team meeting where the tacit assumption is that the most senior person’s opinion carries the most weight.

Even if not explicitly voiced, team members may adjust their behaviour—deferring to the senior person or hesitating to challenge their ideas.

Power dynamics: Implicit hierarchies and influence patterns.

Here are two examples:

1. Coercive Power:

  • A manager threatens an employee with a poor performance review if they don’t work overtime.
  • The fear of punishment influences the employee’s behaviour.

2. Referent Power:

  • A well-liked team lead motivates peers to achieve team goals.
  • Their popularity and influence foster collaboration.

Historical Context: Past events that impact present behaviour.


A clear example of this would be the COVID-19 pandemic. This event forced organisations to act rapidly. Remote work, virtual collaboration and flexible schedules became the norm. This has now provided historical context for workers in terms of expectations and preferences.

5 tips to articulate your workplace culture

Articulating the workplace culture isn’t just about finding words, it is understanding the hidden and desired behaviours that shape your workplace. Here are 5 tips to start the process:

1. Define Your Values:

  • Clearly articulate your company’s core values. These serve as the foundation of your culture.
  • Ensure that key stakeholders (including executives) are involved in creating a single value statement that reflects the organisation’s vision and purpose.

2. Set Clear Objectives:

  • Ensure that employees understand the organisation’s long-term goals.
  • Align individual and team objectives with the broader mission to reinforce cultural alignment.

3. Promote Inclusion and Diversity:

  • Establish diversity initiatives and foster inclusive practices.
  • Encourage collaboration across all background and experiences to create a culture that is dynamic and representative of the customer base.

4. Transparency and Communication:

  • Encourage transparency at all levels.
  • Foster open communication among department heads, management, and team members.
  • Invite every employee to have a seat at the table and empower them to share their ideas and concerns.

5. Share Your Story:

  • Articulate the organisation’s culture through storytelling.
  • Communicate the journey, milestones, and values that define your organisation.
  • Use internal channels, such as newsletters or town hall meetings, to reinforce this narrative.

Culture is the sum of our hidden actions

In the quiet corners of our workplaces, away from the spotlight and the watchful eyes, culture shows its true essence. It’s not the polished slogans or the framed mission statements that define us—it’s the unguarded moments, the whispered conversations, and the choices made when no one is watching. It’s the camaraderie during late-night brainstorming sessions, the empathy extended to a colleague in need, and the integrity upheld when shortcuts beckon.

Culture isn’t a facade; it’s the sum of our hidden actions—the choices we make when the spotlight fades. It’s about recognising the behaviours that shape the work environment—the small acts of kindness, the accountability, and the trust built over time. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So let’s peel back the layers, question assumptions, and embrace the culture that thrives when no one is watching.

Further information

Ai Group has experienced HR consultants who can partner with your business to devise a strategy to optimise workplace culture and engagement. For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information. 

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.