A Leader’s Guide to Culture

In the summer of 1982, between my junior and senior year of college, I worked on the assembly line at GM’s Lansing Car Assembly, putting parts on Oldsmobiles.

A few days into the job, one of my co-workers, the shop steward for the union, approached me.

“Hey, Andy, you need to slow down. Some of the guys think you’re trying to make them look bad.”

Now, I grew up on a cherry farm, and my Grandad taught me to work hard. He wouldn’t even let me sit down to do jobs that were more comfortable sitting down. He’d say, “Son, never sit down on the job. It makes you look lazy.”

One of my core values has always been to work hard, and not working hard because my co-workers didn’t like it created a real conflict for me.

So what did I do? I slowed down because I wanted to be accepted and not rejected. I’d adapted to the culture, for better or worse.

What Is Culture?

There are dozens of definitions of culture, but after 25 years, consulting and coaching with over 120 organizations, I define culture as, “The influence of the workplace environment on behavior.”

culture definition

My story of Lansing Car Assembly is a demonstration of this definition in action. My behavior was influenced by the workplace environment, in this case, my coworkers. They pressured me to lower my standards so that they wouldn’t be uncomfortable.

Looking back, I think about the impact of slowing down. By lowering the performance bar we underachieved, lowering productivity, and depressing my attitude.

We conspired to create an environment where we weren’t doing our best so, consequently GM wasn’t doing its best.

Your organization is the sum total of what people say and do. Your organization’s performance depends on people’s behavior. Behavior is what makes your organization function. Because culture is the influence of the workplace environment on behavior, leaders must attend to culture as a critical priority.

Leadership’s Crucial Role in Building Culture

Leaders and managers have the most significant impact on culture. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Unfortunately, many leaders believe that culture is “out there.” When employees shape up, the culture will improve. Some leaders believe they’re above it, not a part of it.

I always start a culture revitalization project by working with leaders before we involve employees. It’s crucial that leaders take an in-depth look at themselves before we work on anyone else.

Leaders are Role Models

Because they have so much power, people look and listen to senior people to take their cues on how to speak and act.

People see what leaders say and do as examples of what it takes to be successful in the organization. If you want to get ahead, you’d better emulate your leaders’ words and actions.

As a leader, you should understand that people are basing their behavior on yours. If you see behavior in others that you don’t like, start by looking at your behavior for its source.

leader voice

The Influence of the Senior Leadership Team

Culture originates with leaders and flows out from them.

When there’s discord in the executive conference room, don’t expect to see communication, cooperation, or collaboration throughout your organization.

Interdepartmental teamwork will happen when you work on relationships at the executive meeting table.

Leaders’ Words and Actions Have a Deep Impact

Leaders are often unaware of how their words and actions impact others.

A senior executive I once knew seemed compulsively negative – his reaction to every idea was to find what was wrong with it and pick it apart. He saw this as a virtue, justifying it by saying, “I’m the last line of defense. I have to guard our money, so I need to make sure every idea brought to me will not cost us.”

His sense of responsibility for the organization’s money was completely appropriate. His execution left a lot to be desired.

His behavior shut people down. One person told me, “We walk on eggshells around here. I’ve stopped offering new ideas because I’m sick of being criticized. I wait to be told what to do.”

People Have Magnified Reactions to Leaders

People also have magnified reactions to what leaders say and do – more significant than the reactions they would typically have to co-workers.

For example, the manager of a computer chip manufacturing plant told me that when he first arrived he was getting a tour of the operation and he casually asked about a basket of chips sitting on a machine. The next morning the basket was on his desk with a report describing its history. He was merely curious, but people heard his question and reacted to it with urgency, diverting their attention away from real priorities.

This experience was how he learned about the power of his words and actions, and he became careful about what he said and did from that day forward.

leader reaction

The Danger of Leadership Hubris

The biggest obstacle to creating a great culture is leadership hubris – excessive pride or self-confidence.

Leaders who believe they’ve “arrived,” and don’t need to work on themselves or see employees as “the problem,” will find limited success in creating a great culture. Many leaders have asked me to, “fix their people,” and it’s always a red flag.

The journey to becoming a leader usually builds confidence. A leader who has risen to the top has proven to themselves that they know what they’re doing. They believe they must be exemplary because they were promoted for their performance. However, once they become a leader, the strengths that got them promoted can become weaknesses, and they may be blind to that fact.

For example, being driven as an individual performer can create great results. If you get promoted because of the results achieved through hard-driving behavior, you assume that’s the secret to success, and you push the people you’re now leading to be hard-driving.

So you start pushing people to work harder and longer hours, criticizing those that can’t keep up, and people start leaving.

What made you successful as you climbed the ladder, won’t necessarily make you successful when you’re in charge. Pride and self-confidence in what made you successful can prevent you from seeing this.

Leaders who want to create a great culture need to be able to look at what they assume, believe, say, and do. This kind of self-examination requires tremendous humility, courage, strength, transparency, and persistence.

Self-reflection and the quest for self-awareness are not for the faint of heart and certainly the road less traveled, but I’ve coached hundreds of leaders to follow that path. While challenging, it will enable you to make life better for yourself and others, professionally and personally.

Who’s Responsible for Culture?

Leaders are the primary stewards of culture, but everyone influences culture.

The way employees interact with each other has a strong influence independent of leadership. Employees can speak and behave in ways that either lift each other (and the organization) up or drag it down. They can be the change they wish to see in the organization, regardless of any other person’s behavior.

From this perspective, it doesn’t matter what your title is, or where your name appears on the org chart. Whether you’re the chief financial officer or a field technician, your thoughts, words, and actions have an influence.

I’ve seen organizations where leaders aren’t creating a positive environment, yet despite that, teams within the organization are doing everything they can to make their immediate environment positive.

Teams and individuals get into trouble when they become “victims” of their culture. I’ve heard way too many people say, “I’ll change when management changes.” Instead of focusing on what they can do to make things as positive as possible, they focus on what’s wrong and give their power away.

A tipping point in building a positive culture occurs when a critical mass of employees take responsibility for their behavior and start saying and doing all the things you’d expect in a positive workplace.

What Does a Positive Culture Look Like?

A positive culture begins with leaders who have a deep, sincere belief that people are inherently good. They cultivate this belief through their words and deeds to make it a widely-held, deeply-felt belief.

People in a positive culture give one another the benefit of the doubt, assuming positive intentions – that people do what they do because they mean well. Assuming that people act in less than positive ways because they are bad or selfish or ignorant nurtures an environment where this kind of divisive thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A positive culture isn’t a Pollyanna environment where people are naïve, and everything is nauseatingly positive and fake. A positive culture is an environment where the orientation is on what’s good, while not ignoring what’s not-so-good.

A positive culture makes it possible to bring up the not-so-good as well as differences of perspective and opinion but in a productive way. Conflicts still happen in positive cultures, but they are navigated with respect, in the interest of understanding each other so that a higher level of thinking can emerge.

Trust is built through transparency in a positive culture. People share their thoughts and feelings honestly, which enables others to trust them.

Leaders have humility. They don’t believe they have all the answers and seek to understand their thinking, feeling, words, and behavior.

Leaders are transparent about their thinking and feeling. They share their limitations with others and enlist their help in improving. By doing this, they make it possible for others to do the same.

In a positive culture, you see people collaborating across departments. Foundational principles (mission, vision, and values) drive behavior and become the common point of reference – the North Star – for shared goals and decision-making.

The Impact of a Positive Culture

A positive culture encourages creative problem-solving and innovation; it makes productive conflict possible, it encourages people to support one another and creates conditions for people to rise above their limitations.

A positive culture also plays a part in the evolution of human consciousness, the enlargement of the soul, and the liberation of the human spirit.

Positive culture also impacts key performance measures.

John Kotter and James Heskett researched 32 companies over 11 years, sorting the companies into two types of cultures.

  • Defensive cultures were characterized as being reactive, constantly fighting fires, responding to what was urgent, and trying to catch up with competitors. In these cultures, day-to-day survival dictated priorities.
  • Constructive cultures had a creative orientation, focused on nurturing an environment that enabled people to focus on priorities, interact in positive ways, embody their values, and create value for customers, investors, the community, and employees.

In the bar chart below you can see the incredible difference in performance between a reactive approach and a creative orientation.

  • Over 400% greater performance in generating revenue.
  • Net revenue over 7,000% higher.
  • More than 1,200% higher stock prices.

What Culture Isn’t

I recently had a conversation with a CEO, and when I asked him about his company’s culture, he brought up things like their relaxed dress code, company parties, and ping pong tables in break rooms.

These things aren’t culture. They are niceties designed to make people feel good about work, which is fine, but culture is much more profound, more powerful, and essential.

Another thing people bring up when I ask about culture is mission, vision, and values. While potentially powerful principles, mission, vision, and values aren’t worth anything unless they are brought to life. Pretty much everyone has a mission, vision, and values, (even our dry cleaner), but that doesn’t mean people live by them every day.

If your organization has a mission, vision, and values I guarantee they are not contributing to your greatness unless you have held group sessions to discuss what those principles look like in action and how to bring them to life, including what people should do when they experience talk and actions that seem to violate those principles.

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that his or her organization’s mission, vision, and values were nothing more than slogans, I’d have a lot of nickels.

When mission, vision, and values are nothing more than good intentions or marketing slogans, not living principles, it creates cynicism.

Culture Happens

You have a culture in your organization – it exists – whether you let it emerge without managing it, or created it with clear intentions.

The question is, is it the kind of culture you want?

Will you default – paying no attention to culture, letting it continue to influence behavior unconsciously – or will you consciously develop your culture to ensure it brings out the best in people?

Will you make the investment of time and attention required to nurture an environment that enables your people, and therefore your organization, to thrive, or will you leave it to chance?

Start Shaping Your Culture Now

Here are some actions you can take to shift your culture. These are especially important if you’re a leader, but anyone can do them.

DO: Have the courage and strength to take an in-depth, honest look at yourself – the way you think, speak, and behave. Seek feedback, humbly consider it, talk to people about it, and do something with it.
DON’T: Avoid self-exploration. What you don’t know is hurting you and your organization. When you do get feedback, don’t defend yourself, deflect or dismiss the information, and don’t go on a witch hunt or shoot the messengers.

DO: If you’re a senior leader, work on your leadership team – particularly on building trust. The best way to do this is by disclosing what you are thinking and feeling.
DON’T: Avoid dealing with tension and conflict in the boardroom, and talking negatively about each other outside that room.

DO: Start speaking and behaving the way you want others to speak and behave. Be the change you wish to see in your organization.
DON’T: Judge everyone around you and excuse your lack of positive words and behavior because others aren’t doing it.

DO: Ask people to let you know when they see you saying and doing things that aren’t positive and in alignment with your foundational principles.
DON’T: Avoid accountability for your words and actions.

DO: Recognize when you’re getting emotionally triggered, and resist reacting. Think about your highest aspirations for yourself, your organization, and your colleagues and respond from that place.
DON’T: Get emotionally hijacked when you’re triggered. Recognize that you’re triggered, remind yourself that this is a normal reaction when you feel threatened, take a deep breath, and just let it be.

DO: Listen and be curious about other people’s ideas. Upon initially hearing them, point out their merits, and build on them.
DON’T: Criticize. Not to say that new ideas shouldn’t be explored, questioned, and carefully considered. It just means that criticism shouldn’t be your first reaction.

DO: Speak positively about people when they’re present and when they’re not.
DON’T: Engage in gossip and talking negatively about people behind their backs.

DO: Initiate group conversations to dive into your foundational principles – your mission, vision, and values. Explore how to bring them to life in words, actions, and decision-making. Discuss how you can positively hold people accountable when they speak and act in contradictory ways.
DON’T: Post, print, and talk about your foundational principles if you haven’t worked on embodying them. When it comes to these principles hypocrisy creates resentment and cynicism.

DO: Tell stories about how you’re serving your customers, how your organization makes the world a better place, and how employees are lifting each other up.
DON’T: Rely on emails, charts, graphs, and PowerPoint presentations to inspire people.

You Can Build a Great Culture, and I Can Help You

Your organization can be a place where ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and I can help you build it.

Over the last 25 years, I’ve worked with over 120 organizations on five continents in every industry, and I’m about to begin my 40th culture revitalization project.

I partner with leaders who are passionate about the human spirit, who want to create environments where people can thrive.

If you’re one of those courageous leaders, let’s talk about how I can help you build an organization that unlocks the spirit and minds of the wonderful people who work there.

Let’s Talk!

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