Some business leaders are dismissive of culture. They might think it seems soft or unnecessary. Others think of it like flossing—something they know they should do and plan to get to eventually, just not today. Or they view it like the weather, as something they know exists and must be taken into consideration, but that lies outside their control. I’ve even met business leaders who feel like they’re a victim of their own culture.
Culture matters. And any leader can work to create an amazing culture on their team. You have to start by understanding that culture exists. Anywhere you have a group of people, there’s a culture. You have a culture in your family, in your marriage, and among your friends. Your company has a culture, too.
Culture is the way we reliably engage with our work and one another, determined by a set of shared values and behavioral norms that reliably drives operating results and employee satisfaction. There’s a relationship between operating results and employee satisfaction. When your team enjoys their work and feels like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves, they produce better results. You directly benefit from a thriving culture.
Let’s get more specific. Culture is essential for four reasons.
Culture Creates Felt Safety
Business owners feel safe when they’re generating revenue and have money in the bank. But teams feel safe when they have set expectations and boundaries. They feel safe when they have clarity about what they need to accomplish and how others will interact with them.
I once worked for a boss who was volatile and had a lot of unspoken expectations. It was not a good combination. I felt like I was throwing darts blindfolded. A good day was one when I wasn’t getting yelled at. As a result, I didn’t play to win. I played not to lose. That’s what a culture of fear does: it narrows your team’s focus to simply surviving. You can’t thrive when you’re just trying to survive.
When your team feels forced into a position of self-protection, they won’t take the risks essential to innovation and creativity. They won’t think outside the box. Fear and exploration are mutually exclusive. Without access to your team’s best thinking, your operating results will suffer.
One incredibly effective way to eliminate fear in your organization is to decriminalize failure. If failure is catastrophic, it will make everyone nervous all the time. Extending permission to fail makes it possible to try new things and achieve huge wins, even if they come with some losses. In the long run, the wins will far outweigh the losses. In the words of John Maxwell, “Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn.”
Culture Enables a Sense of Congruence
Congruence means that two things line up. And it’s becoming incredibly common for people to want their personal values to align with the values of their company. They don’t want to experience the cognitive dissonance that happens when the two are out of alignment.
That means your culture needs to resonate with the kind of people you want to attract. When people feel like they belong, like they’ve found their tribe, they’ll bring their whole selves to work and perform at their best.
Creating a sense of congruence requires fighting the temptation to set values that are common or innocuous. Your values should take a stance. They should be defined and specific. They should push people toward a moment of decision. If they opt out, they probably weren’t a good fit. But if they opt in, you’ll have a team who is excited to work for you and with one another. That level of enthusiasm leads to far greater outcomes for your company.
Culture Calls Out the Best
Culture calls us to a standard. It challenges us to reach for the best of ourselves individually and as a team. Without something to reach for, we operate on autopilot. Our behavior and ambition can go sideways. When we have a standard to aspire to, we have to work to bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
One thing that makes masterminds or coaching programs so powerful is being surrounded by others who are pursuing growth and want to develop to their full potential. That’s the kind of culture you want to create at your company. A-players bring out the best in others. They attract other A-players. And when you have a team full of A-players, retaining your team becomes a lot easier. Once you’ve played with the best, you never want to go back to mediocrity.
Culture Flags Drift Quickly
It’s natural to drift to what feels comfortable or easy. We’re human. But when we’re drifting, we don’t show up in the world in the way we want to. We don’t drift to places we would choose. Defining clear standards for who we are and how we will act together makes it obvious where there is a gap.
Those gaps are part of the journey. We won’t get it right all of the time. But when our missteps are obvious, we can course-correct and move forward.
Imagine the field of your favorite sport. It has boundaries. Those boundaries matter, because they make the game easier to play. They keep the ball moving down the field. Specific values flag behavior that’s out of bounds, keeping you from ending up in a situation where you say one thing and do another.
Misalignment between what we claim to value and the way we actually behave sows cynicism and disillusionment. There’s nothing more toxic to your culture. Your team will feel they don’t know who they can trust. They don’t know what’s required. They’ll play it safe. They’ll do the minimum required of them. And, sooner than later, they’ll leave.
Bottom line: culture is a growth strategy for your business. It’s among the most underutilized. And as a leader, it’s your job to learn how to leverage this tool. To identify your next steps, read “The Recipe for a Thriving Culture.”
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