Where Does ‘Good’ Culture Come From?

Deborah Knupp

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Deborah Knupp is the Managing Director of GrowthPlay, a research-based sales effectiveness consulting and training firm. She has 30 years of experience as a business development expert working with leaders in the legal, manufacturing, accounting and financial services to align their people and business objectives to create cultures based on the principles of accountability and integrity.

Organizational culture is a curious construct. Every workplace has a culture, whether its leaders intentionally create it or not. And while it’s easy to identify a dysfunctional culture that grows from toxic (or absent) leadership, many cultures suffer from a more nuanced disconnect between who they say they are and what life is really like for the people who work there. Even healthy, thriving cultures — an achievement to be celebrated, especially in the legal industry! — are not self-perpetuating. Whether a leader is starting with a deficit or simply trying to hold on to hard-won gains, the secret to creating and sustaining a good organizational culture is to do it on purpose.

Leaders must understand how they are designing their cultures to “be” and what they are designing their culture to “do” — and continue to reflect and communicate “why” culture matters. Though there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for success, here are some powerful steps all leaders can take to build a thriving and sustainable workplace:

Make core values operational. Most firms promote an official set of “core values” internally, yet few of them take the additional step of explicitly translating those values into a code of behavior to make values visible in action. The core values stay isolated in the abstract and in the platitudes that do not necessarily translate into the actions or behaviors that become visible within the culture.

For example, many organizations embrace a value like “We respect the individual,” yet team members may have different ideas about how to live out that value. Translated into a code of behavior, “We respect the individual” might become “We talk to, not about, people” — meaning that our culture does not tolerate unproductive gossip or back-channel talk. Cultures that talk to, not about, people will address miscommunication or frustration directly with colleagues, focusing on collaborative solutions. Of course, each organization must tailor its operational definition as needed, and the focus should be on clearly articulating how to “be and do” the behavior that stems from the core value.

Another common core value is “We value a learning culture.” That could mean so many different things. Leaders who want to realize this value could increase learning in their cultures by translating this value into a code of behavior. For example, “We celebrate failure as an opportunity for learning, and talking about failure is how we learn” would provide a visible personification of a “learning culture.”  An organization adopting this value and behavior may also support its expression through “failure forum” meetings, where people can share and celebrate failures and lessons learned. Leaders do well to set the example and share first in demonstrating the behavior to make it safe for the rest of the team to follow.

John Wooden famously said, “The true test of character is what we do when no one is watching.” The true test of an organization’s core values is how employees live them out within their teams, in one-on-one interactions and across the remote work environment when they are working independently. If the actual culture on the ground does not match the organization’s core values, it’s time to make a more explicit code of behavior.

Learn to speak four cultural “languages.” One of my least favorite core values is “Our team is collegial.” At best, “collegial” says vanilla and at worst it can be translated as encouraging people to mask parts of their lives and experiences in order to “fit in” and be accepted. Collegial environments may not feel like places that welcome the whole person. Instead, organizations could focus on building connectedness that goes well beyond collegial.

While it may seem like an odd comparison, work relationships are not unlike family relationships and friendships in that their success depends on an intentional investment on both sides, and a recognition that people speak a few different “languages” when it comes to feeling valued. For example…

People feel valued when they experience quality time. Leaders must deliberately schedule time for getting to know each other, support each other and have fun together (an especially challenging task in a remote environment).

People feel valued when they give and receive acts of service. For some folks, actions speak louder than words. Organizations can incentivize going above and beyond to help colleagues, and collaborating to solve problems instead of simply providing lip service.

People feel valued when they hear words of affirmation. While constructive feedback matters and can help others improve, leaders can also model what it looks like to affirm someone’s intentions and shine a light on successes, and encourage this behavior across the organization.

People feel valued when they receive a “gift.” Compensation includes money, paid time off, flexibility to live your life alongside your job, and perks that make work more enjoyable.

Shift from a “scarcity” to an “abundance” mindset. For more than a year, most organizations have been operating from a place of scarcity. Either business was down, or leaders feared the bottom would soon drop out, so they laid people off, froze raises and pulled back from any new ventures that seemed risky. While some of these choices may have been necessary and wise in the early months of the pandemic, they sent a signal to the entire organization that there is not enough to go around, and that has a negative impact on culture, sometimes pitting colleagues against each other in a kill-or-be-killed mentality. As the market has changed — with many law firms reporting surprisingly large profits coming out of last year — and even in organizations still facing real challenges, it’s time to reevaluate this mindset and think instead about abundance. The abundance mindset affirms that there is enough to go around, that what you focus on grows, that we can always find new opportunities, even under difficult circumstances, and that collaboration yields better results that individual striving.

Your organization can play to win, or play not to lose. The score of the game may be exactly the same, yet the experience of playing will be radically different and the residual energy left over has a tremendous impact on culture.

Prepare for the “shadow pandemic.” While the first three ideas in this article are rooted in optimism about the future of workplace culture in our changed world, this last idea expresses a note of caution. Business leaders feel a strong and understandable desire to put the pandemic behind them and “get back to normal,” yet it is very important that leaders do not fall into the trap of toxic positivity, a relentless insistence on “the bright side” that can delegitimize real feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness or hardship.

Mental health professionals predict a shadow pandemic that will linger long after the threat from the virus has diminished. The burnout, anxiety and trauma generated by this extraordinarily difficult time are real, and they will continue to impact different people in different ways. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently noted that, “Our policy-making has not accounted for the fact that people’s work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked, and if one suffers, so does the other.” Building a healthy workplace culture requires leaders to acknowledge and prepare to respond to the reality of these challenges.

With an intentional approach, and a clear vision for the organization they hope to build, leaders can create a healthy, productive culture that unlocks the potential of every team member and celebrates shared success.

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