Understanding the Dynamics of Culture

I came across yet another article that chose to take a limited approach to organizational culture.  There are many out there.  They talk of a “culture of accountability,” or “a learning culture,” or, like this one, “a culture of happiness.”  Yes, all of these things are important, but they are only small parts of what comprises the whole of the cultures that exceptional organizations have.  And while each of these exceptional organizations have their own unique cultures, there are strong similarities, in that they all exhibit the Seven Elements of High Performance™.  We have chosen to call the cultures that exhibit these similarities as a Culture of Engaged Performance™.  This term goes beyond describing just one aspect of the culture, such as “happiness” or “accountability,” but focuses instead on the results that this culture provides for the organization – Performance.  It also includes how we are obtaining this performance; through the engagement of employees, which provides a sustainable approach to obtaining high levels of performance.

So what is culture?  A simple, but very effective definition of culture is “how we do things around here.”  How we do things is comprised of two components: the processes through which our work flows; and how we interact with each other, both inside and outside of the organization.  If we look to the Seven Elements of High Performance™ Model, we will find that the two Foundational Elements of Personal Responsibility and Trust exemplify these two components of culture.

Personal Responsibility is about allowing employees to make decisions about their work.  Having good processes in place and the right information will allow employees to make good decisions.  As we look at Personal Responsibility in the model, you will notice that there are three other elements that are located right below it: Strengths, Innovation, and Vision.  These elements are the supporting elements that contribute to the process part of culture.  First, if we are going to have employees make good decisions, then they need to be developed to the point that they have enough mastery of their job that they can make those good decisions.  They need the right skills and good information, but they also must know what is important to accomplish, or the Goals that are an integral part of the organization’s Vision.  Together, the Mastery part of Strengths and the Goals part of Vision help lead us to Personal Responsibility.

But if employees are simply going to blindly follow a set of processes that are based on training and a measurable outcome, then where does “decision-making” come in?  Obviously we can’t train for every situation or have a process for every possible problem.  We have to give employees the latitude to solve these problems or issues as they arise, based on their training, experiences, and the things that matter.  This is where a huge dose of Innovation comes into play.  We have to empower employees to constantly seek out ways to make things better and solve problems, both internally and for our customers.

The caveat, however, is that employees can’t just make any decision, even if it will help us to accomplish our Goals.  This is where “how we interact” with others comes into play, and now we look to the Foundational Element of Trust.  No matter how good our processes are, they will not function well if we do not Trust our employees to make good decisions and take Personal Responsibility.  As we look at Trust in the Seven Elements Model, we see that there are also three other Elements that are right above it: Vision, Leadership, and Strengths.  The Purpose and Values aspect of Vision is what keeps employees from making just any decision to accomplish the Goals, as all decisions must be in keeping with accomplishing the Purpose, and within the boundaries set forth by the Values.

Leadership is what connects employees and their work to the Vision of the organization, and allows them to become emotionally engaged and want to see that the organization is successful.  It keeps them focused on using the Values of the organization to make good decisions.  Leadership also keeps them focused on the Four Behaviors that Build Trust™, which helps them build good interpersonal relationships with others, both inside and outside of the organization.  Perhaps this interaction component is the most important part of culture and how we do things, because no one wants to work with or be a customer of someone that they do not Trust or get along with.

This takes us to the Element of Strengths, and Accentuating the Positive.  It is so much easier to have trusting relationships when we are in positive environments.  Research indicates that negativity is not only emotionally draining, it drains energy.  Less energy leads to less work, less focus, and less performance.  Energy, is a huge resource in the organization, and can become a force multiplier if it is positive, while negative energy simply sucks the life out of the relationships in our organization.  This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of leadership; overcoming the negative and, instead, Accentuating the Positive.  But when we do focus on the Positive we make those we lead stronger, and our organization stronger (hence, the connection to the Element of Strengths).

Managers set the stage for encouraging positivity in the organization.  Yes, it can be a challenge for some.  This can lead to an unnatural, or forced attempt to be positive, where the manager comes across as phony or even “Pollyannaish.”  The goal is not to become sugary-sweet or avoid problems or issues, but rather to acknowledge and deal with them in a straightforward and supportive manner, focusing on the problems or issues; not on punishment or some other negatively contrived outcomes for the employees who are dealing with these challenges.  Simply showing some care and concern for the employee and support for them and their work will go a long ways towards increasing positivity throughout your entire organization.  When managers take the attitude that their job is not to find problems and punish employees, but rather to find what is going right and encourage employees to do more of it, they then begin to change the organization and its culture.

There is one other element that is perhaps the most important of all.  I stated earlier that culture is simply “how we do things around here.” Culture comes from the People in the organization.  While the physical surroundings, resources, and other external, inanimate factors have an impact on us, it is really our reactions to them and our decisions about how we are going to move forward that puts them into play.  We decide how they will influence our decisions and how they will impact our organization.

We also decide how we are going to interact with others and if we will Destroy or Build Trust with them.  We decide if we are going to have a positive workplace and if we are going to live our Values.  We decide if we are going to develop ourselves and others and share information with them so that they can take Personal Responsibility for their work and having successful outcomes to achieve our Goals.  We decide if we are going to be Innovative in order to solve problems, please customers, and keep moving forward to insure longevity of the organization.

We make these decisions, not just the CEO or any individual manager, but everyone in the organization.  It takes all of us, and it is all of us that make up our culture.  It is the People of the organization that create the culture, live the culture, and can change the culture, for the better or for the worse.


Some questions to consider:

  1. Does your organization have high levels of Trust throughout it?
  2. Do your employees know and live your organization’s Values?
  3. Do your employees know what behaviors support your Values, and what behaviors are outside of them?
  4. Do you have a high level of communication throughout your organization?
  5. Are decisions and problems moved up and down through the organization to the next level before 24 hours has ended?
  6. Does everyone know what they need to know to make good decisions?
  7. Have you mapped processes in your organization so that people can use those processes for guidance in making decisions?
  8. Have all of your employees been trained in the key operational aspects of their job?
  9. Do your employees know what Goals they can personally impact?
  10. Does your organization avoid blame and punishment for mistakes and encourage employees to take risks for the sake of the organization?


If you cannot answer “Yes” to each and every question, then that question might give you some information about where to put some efforts as you strive to create a Culture of Engaged Performance™.


You can learn more about a Culture of Engaged Performance™ and other related concepts in Gary’s next book “Rising Above Mediocrity: The Path to Performance,” which will be released in 2014.