“Culture” can be defined as the shared beliefs of an organisation.
And that culture and climate – of any working environment – is powerfully influenced by its leadership.
Whether for good or ill, no style of leadership is neutral: they all have their (significant) impact on team and business performance – in turn, affecting results. Both on the more human side of things and bottom line.
When thinking about the foundations of a positive culture, two much-sought-after characteristics are honesty and integrity. And it’s no coincidence that those are two crucial competencies for leaders also. Yet despite the universal acknowledgement that these are givens, we still see and hear about bad behaviour that contradicts these virtues. Why?
Because on individual and group levels, we make inaccurate associations between bad behaviours and results (which are achieved by good behaviours and despite bad behaviours, not because of them – but we don’t make the distinction); and then keep that story going under the heading “culture”. As in: “That’s how things are done around here”. Or “That’s what’s required if you want to survive and thrive here”.
Shifting a culture can seem like a mammoth task. And that’s true if we’re talking about an entire organisation. But that’s not the place to start. The place to start is with ourselves and our own little corner of the world. And in that context, positively impacting the culture need not be a Herculean task, but rather a series of small but positive behaviours that, incrementally, add-up to cultural change.
Here are 4 leadership habits to inspire a stimulating and empowering culture amongst your own team.
1. Talk about the culture
Culture is something to be talked about. We don’t often think that thought: rather, we view culture as something that just happens of its own accord. That there’s no point in discussion: it’s already determined.
But of course, that’s not true. Culture is a product of the ethos, behaviours, beliefs and collective personality of a group. And we can be far more intentional about culture than we care to think.
So, talk about the culture. Talk about what culture we want to instil. What does that look and feel like? What are we doing that’s consistent with that desired culture and could do more of? What needs to change? What needs to go?
Through these conversations, get everyone on message. Help set the filters around the key ingredients to our desired culture. Help the team get intentional about the culture they help create. And be sure to challenge any stuck or errant thinking that adds-up to a negative culture.
2. Co-create agreements in place of setting expectations
Culture is not just a product of the leadership, but rather is influenced by everyone within that microcosm. It’s easy and comfortable (and not particularly helpful) to push the responsibility on to the leadership and devolve ourselves of any responsibility. And we do that when we talk excessively of the nameless “they”. But culture is a team effort.
As leaders, one powerful way to inspire that kind of ownership thinking in our people is by co-creating agreements in place of setting expectations.
Expectations are only ever one-way. They’re either all over here with me and what I expect. Or they’re all over there with you and what you didn’t do. And they’re only talked about when one of us is disappointed with the outcome.
Agreements, by contrast, exist in the space between us. And unlike expectations, agreements require two party participation. To have an agreement, we both need to participate – and commit. In an agreement, we are saying: “I now know what I can count on from you.” And by return, “here’s what you can count on from me.”
Co-creating agreements underscores these characteristics even further. When we work with our people to create the agreement together, at once we model multiple positive behaviours which all add-up to an inspired and empowering culture.
3. Walk the talk
To take cultural change out of the abstract and into the real-world, we need to walk our talk. And we might go so far as to say: “leading by example” is nowhere more a key leadership mantra than regarding cultural influence. But for this to make a difference, we must actually do it – and believe in it.
So, live those agreements you’ve co-created with your team. Don’t just stick to them – live them. That means taking them into everything you do – so you and your people come to know this stuff not just at an intellectual level, but at a DNA level. Our lower brain needs the demonstrable proof that these changes are good for us – so act!
This habit of “walking our talk” crucially necessitates shedding the fear of the “tough, but necessary” actions and conversations. But by their very nature, these “tough, but necessary” actions are going to be kept at arm’s length by our (short-term, comfortable, survivalist) instinct. We need to prompt for a change there – and instead, build the habit of going straight at those pain points.
Anything else, and we’re just tolerating unacceptable behaviours – which is the same as endorsing the negative culture we want to dispel.
4. Reward the cultural wins
Like anything as all-encompassing as culture, lasting change is not created by a huge, one-time gargantuan effort; but by the accumulative effect of many micro thoughts and behaviours, practised over time. And since we don’t repeatedly do what our lower brain doesn’t see or come to know as worthwhile, we need to reinforce the positive behaviours.
This is obvious stuff. But when we’re talking about culture – something that’s literally woven into the day-to-day – it’s very easy to overlook the cultural wins as “what should be happening anyway”. But until those behaviours are ingrained as habit, they need positive focus, attention and reinforcement – else previous behaviours will kick back in.
As a leader, set yourself the intention of catching your people doing the right things, at the right time and in the right way. Get really clear in your own mind what those desired culture-supporting behaviours are. And then make it your habit to watch for and reward them. Do that by offering a 1-minute praising. What you saw, why it’s good, how it made you feel and what it’ll lead to. Make sure it’s authentic, timely and rooted in fact. And the recipient’s brain will love it!