Building culture

Organisational culture can be tough to define, but it can be even more challenging to create a sustainable, high-performance culture. Ben Horowitz describes culture as “What you do is who you are” – the title of his new book. Having worked in several large organisations over the past 25 years, I agree entirely. It’s not what we say that builds culture, and it’s definitely not what we think. It’s what we do.

I’ve written this before, but when I was a college student doing my B.Sc., I was amazed at how quickly a single bacterial colony could take over an entire agar plate. Culture established in the right medium becomes dominant, squeezing out other cultures. In an organisational context, to my mind, values make up the substrate that drives principles. Principles, in turn, drive behaviours. (I’ve written in a previous post about the point at which mission, principles and goals meet to produce outcomes).

I like this view of a “culture chain”, but one of the senior executives I discussed this with believes that in his (globally recognisable) organisation the chain is shorter. In his view, values drive behaviours, without the need for a set of overarching principles. As he put it “if the values are compelling and simple enough for anyone to understand, you don’t need a stated set of principles to drive behaviours.”

Regardless of the existence of a set of articulated principles, consistent behaviours are what make the culture. The actions we take as managers and leaders (regardless of what we say) establish the norm in the team, department or group we lead. Anything we do that is inconsistent with what we say immediately causes a disruption in the culture (a disturbance in the Force, for the Star Wars fans out there). A kind of cultural dissonance, if you will. If we talk about a culture that values honesty and integrity, and a senior executive makes a demonstrably false claim, it causes ripples through the organisation. It also undermines trust.

Our job as managers, leaders and culture carriers at all levels is to exemplify the culture we want to build by the actions we take. Not only is it on us to act as we wish the organisation to behave, but it is also our responsibility to publically and visibly reward individuals who are acting in a culturally-congruent way.

Daniel Coyle, in his book “The Culture Code” emphasises one foundational element which is critical to establishing and maintaining high-performing cultures. We must create safety. In most cases, this isn’t referring to physical security – it’s to do with creating an environment where people feel safe to tell “truth to power”. An environment where failure is not punished automatically – a sure way to stifle innovation. If we want people to feel safe to try new things, we need to support an environment that tolerates “micro-failures”. This is how all of us learn the best lessons – by trying, failing and then trying again. It’s how we learned to ride a bike when we were kids, and it is still true for adults. If we don’t make it safe for people to fail, they will be afraid to try new things.

Coyle also writes compellingly about creating “belonging cues” – signals to individuals that they matter and are part of a team. In the book, he writes about the belonging cues that led to the success of the San Antonio Spurs, in large part due to the environment created by their head coach, Gregg Popovich (Bloomberg have an interesting article on his “5 Pillars” here.) Popovich sets a high bar for his players and is known to bawl them out – but has built a culture of belonging by bringing them together after games, win or lose, for food and wine.

The behaviours that Popovich and other successful leaders demonstrate are based on creating a culture in which values and actions align. Where people are willing to be vulnerable with each other (and someone always has to go first). And where we create safety through shared vulnerability; by doing hard things together, by not punishing failure but celebrating success. Together.

Strong organisational culture appears to be one of the predicting factors for success. Building that culture requires consistent effort, a clear set of values, and most importantly, completely congruent actions aligned to those values.

The above represents my view of how cultures are built – I would be delighted to hear how you build yours.

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