Why Great Leaders Know Culture is a Key to Performance
Originally published June 14, 2022 by John Eades in the “Building the Best” Newsletter.
Getting leaders to care about culture because it’s is a battle worth fighting.
Organizational Culture, by definition, is the shared values and beliefs that guide thinking and behavior. If your mind just shifted by that definition, you are not alone. Most professionals think about the office building, ping pong tables, or cool perks that come with the job.
Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Drucker didn’t mean the strategy wasn’t necessary, but he did know that when a group of people are aligned with their values and beliefs, their habits and behaviors would be a more promising route to sustained success.
Most employees want to be a part of an elite culture, but organizational leaders lack the knowledge and ability to make it happen. Instead, they pawn off the responsibility of culture to a company committee, HR team, or worse, ignore it altogether.
If only more leaders grasped the leadership principle from Building the Best:
Culture starts with leaders, and their people prove it.
Said differently, leaders create the culture which ultimately becomes the result. Embracing the responsibility that you both shape and impact the culture of your organization, team, or family is one of the most critical mindset shifts that happen in any leader’s journey. The reason is simple, when leaders prioritize culture, team members will gladly give the best version of themselves daily.
If leaders prioritize culture, team members will gladly give the best version of themselves daily.
The Four Elements That Make Up Any Team’s Culture
Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, lead a small team, or guide a family, four consistent elements make up any team’s culture.
Before people can perform at their best, they must first feel safe and protected. How does the current environment make your people feel? First, are the working conditions physically safe? Second, do team members feel psychologically safe to share ideas and feeling without fear of judgement or repercussions?
Inclusivity and people feeling like they are a part of something bigger than themselves help feed productivity and innovation. Does each person on your team feel like they are integral to your ultimate success? At the center of unity is mutual respect amongst team members and a feeling of belonging.
Beliefs drive people’s behaviors, and behaviors drive results. If your team’s beliefs are optimistic, the chances of a good things happening in the future are drastically higher than the alternative. Positivity is driven from the top-down, and it’s contagious. The late Colin Powell said it well in his book, It Worked for Me, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” The best leaders know that achieving higher success levels is impossible without optimism and belief.
Energy keeps your team going and impacts the speed at which people perform. High energy yields high performance. You can always tell the energy of a team by what they’re doing midday. Have they settled into complacency, or are they revving their engines to power throughout the day?
It’s called an elite culture when all four of these elements are achieved simultaneously at high levels. Leaving the development of your team or organizational culture to chance will lead to thinking moving in a direction you may not like because culture is being shaped every day, whether you like it or not. If you do not mold and guide it, your team will end up disengaged, voluntary turnover will increase, and a lackluster attitude will develop.
What Holds Leaders Back from Focusing on Culture?
Like many things, most leaders and organizations start with great intentions, and culture is no different. But when immediate results aren’t realized, people default to their old way of leading.
When immediate results aren’t realized, people default to their old way of behaving.
Research from Quantum Workplace shows 65% of employees say their company culture has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the workplace has changed, culture has too—for better or for worse. One of the downsides of remote work is the challenge of creating and sustaining the workplace culture. It’s difficult to build momentum and energy without being in the same room. However, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The ramification of leaders not focusing on culture, whether remotely or in-person, is steep. Disengaged employees are 3.8 times more likely to cite organizational culture as a reason for leaving than engaged counterparts.
While each organization is a little different, the commitment to culture separates those who adopt and sustain it from those who do not.
How to Create an Elite Culture
If you or your organization is committed to creating an elite culture, here are a few strategies to adopt.
1. Start with Core Values
It is a lot easier to create an elite culture when the core values of the team or organization have definition and are mutually agreed upon. Core values are a group’s fundamental beliefs and guiding principles. Here is a step-by-step guide that’s useful from BetterUp.
It’s easy for an organization to say they have core values, but I look for proof beyond a few words written on walls or on an “about us” page. A good barometer is when leaders not only live them out consistently, but celebrate those who choose to live them out daily.
Defining core values isn’t nearly as important as exercising them.
If you have core values, put them to the test. Ask your team the following:
- Can you define our core values?
- Can you tell me a time recently when I lived them out?
If you haven’t looked at your core values or talked about the previously defined values of your organization or team in a while, don’t do another thing before you do.
2. Create a Culture Award
Most organizations have awards for top performers and top salespeople. However, just because you might be a great individual contributor doesn’t mean you help improve the culture. To further embed an elite culture into the fabric of your people, create a culture award.
Take James Franklin, the head football coach at Penn State University, as an example. Hired in 2014, one of the first things Franklin did was establish four core values for his new team. His entire coaching staff and team members were measured against these values. They were plastered on walls, shirts, and in team binders. Franklin knew it was not the words themselves that were important, but rather the living out of those values.
To help embed the values into the culture, he knew he had to reward, recognize and talk about them in a public setting. Each week during the season, Franklin gathered the entire team and gave out an award to one player in front of the entire team who best lived out the core values. It didn’t take long for the behavior on the team to shift. Players, hungry for their peers’ respect and recognition, wanted to win the culture award. They made choices to live out the core values in and outside their football duties.
The moral of the story is to create a culture award on your team or organization for the member who best lives out the culture on an ongoing basis to sustain excellence. The best ones are names after a former colleague who embodied the values so it can live on long after you’re gone.
3. Coach and Give Feedback Often
There is nothing easy about sustaining culture and energy. One of the best ways is to lean into people who are having challenges. Instead of passing judgment on team members who struggle to perform and contribute to the culture, get curious and start coaching.
Instead of passing judgment on team members who struggle to perform, get curious and start coaching.
Bob Nardelli said, “without a coach, people will never reach their maximum capability,” and I couldn’t agree more. To help others achieve higher levels of excellence, check out Coaching for Excellence.
Each organization and its leaders will go about creating an elite culture in slightly different ways. Regardless if you establish core values and principles or some alternative method. The key is that you must care about your culture and prioritize it daily. It’s absolutely a battle worth fighting.
The only question remaining is what are you doing to mold and shape your culture in a positive direction?
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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.