Why It Matters that “Culture” is the Word of the Year

Amber Johnson Culture, Innovation, Leadership

top10_woty2014_cultureMerriam-Webster, the dictionary people, issues an annual “Word of the Year,” along with nine runners-up. The committee selects the top word based on an increase in look ups and use. This year’s top word is “culture.” Merriam-Webster explains the word, and their decision to put it in the number one slot, this way:

Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).

This year, the use of the word culture to define ideas in this way has moved from the classroom syllabus to the conversation at large, appearing in headlines and analyses across a wide swath of topics.

Culture is more than just a buzzword for us at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. (See CEO as Chief Culture Officer, for one example of the priority we place on the concept of culture.) Our research indicates that in business, there is a strong link between culture and profit – and also between culture and employee engagement, loyalty, and retention. For leaders who want to create an environment where people are positioned to succeed, focusing on culture is a mandate.

Perhaps three of Merriam-Webster’s other top words of 2014 offer an explanation why (as Peter Drucker said) “culture eats strategy for breakfast“:

  • #9: Autonomy: In workplace cultures where individuals are respected – and given a measure of autonomy – they develop “ownership thinking” that helps them make better decisions for the company. For a great example of this, watch our short video Use Your Core Values to Drive Decision Making.
  • #7: Innovation: When the workplace culture cares for individuals, you get more of their brainpower focused on work rather than on emotional distractions in the workplace. Innovation results. Learn more in this short video, Aligning Culture & Values for Innovation.
  • #4: Legacy: Finally, leaders who create positive workplace cultures see the bigger picture. They know that the company’s short term profit margins are less important than its long term prospects. We love the story of Elkay Manufacturing and their value to Be in Business Forever. Watch the video to see how it creates a powerful legacy.

Culture may have topped the list this year, but we don’t think it’s a fad. Instead, it can be a powerful tool for making your company more successful.

MVM 3D image book stack cropLearn more about how to develop strong, positive, profitable cultures through our free e-book, Making Values Meaningful: A Menu of Options for Senior Leaders.


Amber Johnson is the Chief Communications Officer and a Senior Research Associate with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.

Image Credit: Merriam-Webster.

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