It is subtle, intangible, often hard to define and describe, and, perhaps, one of the most important aspects of a company's work environment. What is it? It's culture. Many companies leave culture to chance--but that's a mistake.

"Culture positively or negatively affects your business," says Marcus Erb, a consultant and senior research associate with the Great Place to Work Institute, a consulting firm that creates Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For and 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work For in America lists. "Companies need to establish their cultural DNA early, and if you're a smaller business, you can take control of your culture," he says, noting that Google strategically thought about its culture early on.

A successful corporate culture results in an engaged and productive workforce, and that translates into a profitable and successful company. Those companies, both large and small, that don't consider their culture or completely ignore it often have trouble recruiting and retaining top talent. And that could spell trouble as the economic recovery gathers steam.

But just how does a company go about creating a success culture? "A big mistake organizations make is trying to impose the flavor of the month on their cultures when the culture isn't prepared for it," says Joyce Gioia, an author and consultant with The Herman Group, a management consulting firm specializing in workforce and workplace issues. For example, she says, in the 1980s and 1990s companies tried to impose quality programs. Those programs often failed because there was no plan or strategy to integrate quality into the corporate culture.

To avoid such problems, it's imperative to lay a solid foundation on which to build a sustainable success culture. The Great Place to Work Institute looks at corporate culture from the employee's perspective. If an employee thinks a company is a great place to work, then that bodes well for both parties. In essence, there are three criteria, or ingredients, needed to create a success culture:

  1. Trust: Employees trust their employers and their managers.
  2. Pride: Employees have pride in the work that they do.
  3. Joy: Employees enjoy the people with whom they work.

Once armed with what is needed to create such a culture, employers need to take stock and assess the current workplace environment. One way to do that is to get input from employees. Do "stay interviews," says Gioia. These interviews will help you find out why your employees are staying on the job. Companies can then try to make sure those elements remain.

Other tools employers can use to try to define the culture and figure out how employees fit in are surveys, focus groups and assessments. An assessment asks employees what is most important to them or gives them a list of values and asks them to circle what is most important to them, says Gioia. "Then you find out what people really value and whether there is a good fit."

In assessing the current culture of a company, much of the focus should be on strong employee-employer relationships. "If you don't have a strong relationship with your employees, you will have higher turnover," says Erb.

Finally, perhaps one of the most important strategies an employer can use to create a success culture is to "start to act in the way you want your organization to act," says Erb. "The culture starts at the top and [employers] need to take personal action to change culture."

More from Business on Main