Defining Culture Through People

Defining Culture Through People

Typically, when I begin a dialog with an organization – one of the first things we discuss is “culture”. From my perspective, organizational culture is defined by how people inside the organization interact with each other. How a company involves their team at all levels and includes them in building the culture. Culture is  learned behavior; not an assigned one; it’s not a by-product of anything other than the people, starting with the CEO. Each company creates their own unique organizational culture by the individuals they invite onto their team and then by actions the people take once inside the organization; not the other way around.

Behaviors Are Contagious

Research by UCSD’s James Fowler and Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis, has shown that happiness is contagious. If you have a friend who is happy, the probability that you will be happier rises by 25%. We also know that behaviors are contagious. Christakis and Fowler determined that if you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight yourself. Rose McDermott of Brown University found that divorce is contagious. She concluded that if you have a close friend who’s divorced, you are 33% more likely to split with your spouse.

Jack Zenger, CEO of Zenger/Folkman, took this idea of learned/shared behaviors [“social contagion”] into workplace analytics in 2015 and found that the behaviors that had the highest correlations of social contagion/invisible influence between managers and their direct reports clustered around the following competencies, shown below – in order of most contagious to least contagious:

  • Developing self and others
  • Technical skills
  • Strategic skills
  • Consideration and cooperation
  • Integrity and honesty
  • Global perspective
  • Decisiveness
  • Results focus

These qualities were shared when each level of employee had a leader that possessed and supported these traits and took the time to teach, develop, and instill the interest and importance of each of these behaviors.

As leaders, it behooves us to take a moment to consider and assess the things we do extremely well and the things we don’t. It is absolutely reasonable to suggest that just as the things we do well, are learned and copied by others; the things we do not-so-well have a real probability of being mimicked by others. Our colleagues, our direct reports, our partners have a high probability of practicing the example that we set in every area of our job functions.

Why Trust & Transparency Are Vital To A Strong Culture

I have a few non-negotiables of organizations that I decided to work with. Two of these critical must-haves are, (1) they must have a working mission statement and (2) documented and communicated values that are more than a poster on the wall or a footnote on newsletters. My newest non-negotiable is that they need to have a culture that values and encourages innovation at every level of employee [or at least be sincerely open to it]. A strong innovative culture is a product of the behaviors that every person inside the organization embraces and models. One of the most beneficial elements in an innovative culture is a willingness to have open and frank discussions about what separates good ideas/solutions from the not-so-great ones; and placing value around the conversations that take a rough idea that has potential and allows people to shape it into something that drives improvement. The other extreme value of a culture that mistakes and failure are accepted and they are used as learning opportunities. If today’s employees are fearful of pushing boundaries and sometimes stumbling along the way, the organizational leaders probably aren’t providing enough latitude in their culture. By making it safe and accepting a failed effort as an opportunity for personal/professional growth, organizations can promote innovation. This is usually the most difficult concept for hierarchical and traditionally run companies to embrace.

The only way to build a comfort level of innovation inside an organization is to ensure that all team members understand that you trust them to create and deliver ideas that will be discussed and considered. Harvard Business Review suggests that trust is two-thirds of the criteria for Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For. When there is a culture of trust people have elevated comfort sharing their wins and their failures. They are less inclined to lie and assign blame for mistakes. In far too many organizations employees hoard captious information because it can be their only opportunity to be recognized by leadership, or the perceived culture [or lack thereof] is one in which employees believe information should only be shared for strategic, political reasons.

In healthy cultures, team members are significantly more open about sharing information best practices, and celebrating the successes of their colleagues. Here are some elements that support a culture of trust and transparency:

  • Insist On Radical Candor/Honesty: Building trust with your employees starts with radical candor – both modeling it and demanding it from all employees, regardless of level. When an organization’s leadership in incapable of assessing the true and real state of their business or their analysis deviates from the employee’s day-to-day experience, that gap can create a loss of trust which erodes company culture and – ultimately – customer experience. When leadership cannot determine it’s strengths and weaknesses, it creates impediments to a forward strategy. Every organization needs honesty from their employees in order to identify areas that will require change. Clarity around the organization’s vision and values can reestablish the foundation.
  • Share The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Embracing transparency in the workplace requires the honest sharing of information with all employees. Managers can be hesitant to share difficult information in order to avoid creating crisis or simply because they lack the ability to be honest. In any event, when we approach business communication transparently and genuinely, it is amazing how innovative and helpful our employees can be. They see things from a different perspective and can offer solutions that will help solve elements of the challenge.
  • Seek Suggestions And Take Action: One of the biggest opportunities I see all too frequently is companies taking surveys or soliciting feedback and then having that information sucked up into a black hole of nothingness. When employees are asked for feedback, it takes a lot for the average person to pluck up the courage to contribute [especially if feedback hasn’t been valued in the past]. When organizations actively seek feedback, encourage contribution, and then recognize those who delivered solutions and take actions with the most impactful ideas, it can catalyze others to share their thoughts and suggestions.  This propels the building of trust and credibility.

The Role of Leadership In Organizational Culture

Every single employee plays a role in the process of changing, creating, supporting organizational culture, but at the end of the day, leaders are the ones who can make or break it; the choices they make and the behaviors they model cause a ripple effect on employee recruitment, candidate experience, employee engagement, and performance that powerfully impacts a company’s bottom line and reputation.

Interestingly, according to CultureIQ’s “Top Company Cultures” program, the greatest differentiator between the winners in the culture-sphere and the rest of the applicants is employees’ confidence in their senior leadership. By setting the mission and values of an organization and empowering employees to achieve that mission, leadership builds the foundation of company culture – and it plays an important role in changing it when it needs to be updated, reinvented, or adapted to evolving business priorities. The more leaders can show alignment and agreement with what a company values in its culture, the easier it’s going to be for that culture to become a reality through inviting talent onto the team that is also aligned with these important behaviors and expectations. Culture is absolutely important to the health and sustainability of today’s organizations. It is the purpose and the promise to both the stakeholders and the consumer.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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