Workplace Wisdom

Don’t Talk About Culture. Do Culture. Be Culture.

You won’t build or change an organization’s culture by talking about what it ought to be. Sure, from time to time, you’ll want — and need — to emphasize positive aspects of your culture (or the cultures of other organizations that you respect) as well as decry any negative elements and commit to doing better.

But developing a culture is hard, and actions always speak louder than words. You can’t just benchmark another organization’s culture and copy it into yours. You can certainly make note of things you admire about other organizations and think about how you might move toward those ways of working, but your culture will always be different: It can only be built by your actions in combination with your particular circumstances.

And you certainly can’t get the culture you want by hiring outsiders to shake things up. It’s a lot easier to hire someone who promises to upset the status quo than it is to hire someone who can thoughtfully guide and develop your people and your culture in new directions. You’re asking for big trouble if you intentionally look for someone to create disagreement or controversy as a tool for change.

The sudden, forceful insertion of drastically different values and ways of being into an organization usually leads directly to culture clash, not culture development. As new behaviors and values conflict with original behaviors and values, the emerging culture can end up as a stew of reaction and counter-reaction. Meanwhile, the people hired to change the culture may become frustrated — and implode or explode in extreme cases, sending dangerous shrapnel everywhere.

The Leader Sets the Tone

To truly have impact and make improvements, you have to embody and act out the culture you want, particularly if you’re the leader. Here’s how it really works: If you want timeliness, be timely yourself. When you regularly praise and reward timeliness in others, they’ll identify timeliness as a crucial value and seek to be timely too. The same holds true for focus, kindness, curiosity, fairness, etc. Model the value you want to see — as well as explain it, expect it, and recognize it consistently — over time, it will embed itself in your culture.

But the reverse is also true. If you despair about your organization’s terrible culture of blaming and accusing, start by checking yourself. Do you have a habit of blaming or accusing? Have you been present when others were blamed or accused, yet permitted those charges to stand without challenge?

Do you kindly give appropriate coaching to employees who have intentionally or unintentionally blamed or accused, to ensure that the blamer understands that such behavior isn’t acceptable here? And are you consistent about calling out finger-pointing whenever you see it? Do you call people out when they exhibit other negative values like arrogance, hostility, passive-aggressiveness, backstabbing, or undermining?

A Culture’s Work is Never Done

Employees won’t suddenly become more collaborative and innovative or begin to develop their subordinates just because you ask them to. And they won’t do it because they suddenly realize it would be better that way. They can’t do things differently if they don’t know how. But they’ll learn how if you express and model the organization’s intentions as ways to make the business function better, and embed the behavior requirements into performance goals.

Culture development isn’t just about having an environment that feels good or healthy or energizing — you can feel great and still produce ineffective work. What matters is providing a sense of meaning and purpose that’s pervasive and that everyone subscribes to — plus real business goals and work processes that encourage positive behaviors and support the desired performance. Everyone needs to work toward a level of success that’s consistently defined and understood.

The next couple of posts will look more closely at the specific roles of teams and leaders in developing a company’s culture.

Onward and upward,

LK

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