The Responsibilities of Management Series, #7: Reinforce Your Desired Culture

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 18, Issue No. 2a
June 1, 2019

By Dan Coughlin


Culture is what people across an organization believe is so important that it drives their behaviors on a consistent basis. These common beliefs about what is important are the values of the organization. Values are not necessarily what are posted on the wall. They are what drive behaviors across the organization on a consistent basis.

This is an enormously important topic for the future success of any organization.

Every Organization Has a Culture, And It Takes Intentional Effort to Create the One You Want

Imagine a group of people who share a belief about what is important. That belief drives their behaviors on a consistent basis. They don’t need a supervisor to tell them what to do. They just simply do it day after day because that’s what they believe is really important. Now imagine all the people across an entire organization sharing three to five of the same values. Those folks behave consistently across the organization, and those combined behaviors drive the performance and the results of the organization. That is what a culture does.

When I was in college I lived in a huge dorm. It was 11 stories tall. One of the common beliefs in our building was that you didn’t take other people’s stuff. When our parents mailed us packages, the packages were just put on the floor in front of the mailboxes right out in the open in front of the elevators. No one took anyone else’s packages. A friend came to visit me and said, “Why are all those packages on the floor? Couldn’t anyone steal them?” I just looked at him and said, “Why would anyone do that if they are not his packages?” My friend almost fell over.

Every organization has a culture. Over time beliefs are developed within the people in the organization that consistently drive their behaviors. Those consistent behaviors might be good, bad, or indifferent, but they are driven by beliefs.

To create the culture you want in your organization the five key questions to answer are:

  • What are the consistent behaviors in our organization right now?
  • What values are driving those current behaviors?
  • What behaviors do we want to see across our organization?
  • What values do we want driving those behaviors?
  • How can we reinforce the desired behaviors?

Observe Behaviors and Write Them Down

For the next thirty days just observe what happens in your organization, and write it down. Don’t judge behaviors. Don’t write down names. Just write down your observations. I actually encourage you to have many people in your organization write down the behaviors they see.

Your notes might say something like this:

“A manager asks an employee for help on a project and the employee says she doesn’t have any time to help for the next three weeks.”

“An employee goes up to a manager in the hallway, asks a question, and is told to just do her job.”

“A group of managers sit around a boardroom table and patiently listen as each person gives an update on his or her projects.”

Whatever the behaviors are just write them down. At the end of thirty days you will have a pretty darn good recorded version of the actual culture in which you work. If you compare all of your notes and all of the notes of anyone else who recorded observed behaviors, you might start to see consistent patterns of behaviors. Those are the clues to your actual underlying belief system.

Clarify the Beliefs that are Driving Those Behaviors

Now the more challenging part is to figure out what beliefs are driving those behaviors. Why are people saying they are too busy to help on a project for the next three weeks? Why are managers telling employees to stop asking questions and just do their job? Why are managers listening patiently to each other in meetings? Why are people in your organization consistently doing whatever they are doing?

This requires empathy in order to figure it out. You have to really work to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. You have to ask questions and really listen to understand what people believe is so important that it is driving their behaviors. Don’t cut people off if you hear what you don’t want to hear. Work to understand what is driving their behaviors.

You can talk with people privately, and you can talk with people in small groups. This requires time and effort to understand what other people believe is really important.

Decide on the Behaviors You Want to See Across Your Organization

At this point you have a fairly clear understanding of what is really happening in your organization. You understand the engine underneath the daily actions. Please remember this: the values across the organization are driving the behaviors you see. What people believe is really important is what is causing them to behave the way they do. Those behaviors are driving the organization’s performance.

Make three lists of behaviors. First list: the behaviors you want to continue to see in your organization. Second list: the behaviors you don’t want to have happen anymore in your organization. Third list: the behaviors you want to start happening in your organization.

Don’t just tell people what to do, what to stop, and what to start. That is a very short-term approach that will have no lasting impact on the culture. The place to start is to focus on changing what people believe is so important that it drives their behaviors on a consistent basis. If you can change their values regarding their work life, then you will have made a lasting impact on the culture of the organization.

Carefully Choose the Values You Want Guiding Daily Decisions and Behaviors

Now you are at the stage where lasting change begins to happen. You and the other members of the management group get to decide on what you want the values of the organization to be from here on out. That sounds so easy. Should take about fifteen minutes, don’t you think? You can just Google what other companies do and cut and paste those as your values. And then post them on the wall. Voila. You are all done.


Think of it this way. You get to choose three to five things that people believe are so important that they drive behaviors on a daily basis across your organization. If you try to focus on ten things, then you have diluted your impact on the future performance and results of the organization. You get three to five values. That’s it. And those three to five values determine how people interact with each other, what they spend their time doing, what decisions they make, and how they interact with employees and customers and prospective customers.

Now do you see how incredibly important this stage is in impacting the future of your organization? Please invest the time and energy it takes to determine the values you want guiding behaviors in your organization.

Here are five values, some of which are quite contrarian to what I typically see stated in organizations, that I suggest for organizations:

Value #1: Learn, tweak, and apply.

The best companies, I think, get better on a regular basis. They don’t just do a task, and then move on to the next task. They do a task, and then they pause and reflect on what happened. They identify what worked well and why, what did not work well and why, what to keep doing, what to stop doing, and what to start doing. They identify the lessons they learned or relearned, and they apply those lessons the next time they do the task.

Learn something, tweak it so it fits your situation, and apply it.

Value #2: Reasonableness produces great long-term results.

Many organizations I’ve worked with seem to operate on the belief that an insane work schedule is the best way to produce great results. I disagree with that. 60 hours of work a week plus travel plus late nights plus poor eating can generate some short-term good business results, but it can also lead to a host of problems that hurt long-term business results.

Think of a great meal at an expensive restaurant. They don’t shove piles of food on the plate. They place a reasonable amount of really good food on your plate. It tastes delicious, and you don’t feel overly stuffed when you’re done.

I encourage you to value reasonableness in what you are expecting of yourself and others. It’s extraordinary what people can do with fresh energy and a clear mind.

Value #3: Empathy first, problem-solving second.

Many groups are filled with A-type personalities who want to run in and solve the problem as soon as they hear about it. I suggest you slow down and work to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling. Gain confirmation from the person that you really do understand those things accurately. Only after you understand what the person, or the group, is thinking and feeling about the topic are you really in a position to help develop a solution.

Value #4: Discuss what the right thing is to do, and then act on what you have agreed to do.

The “right” thing to do is almost always a matter of opinion. What you think is right might very well be appalling to another person. Before you move on doing the “right” thing, value discussing it with other people. By broadening your perspective you might very well land on a different interpretation of what is “right.”

Value #5: Contribute real value in every customer interaction.

It is not enough just to do a given job. The ultimate job for all of us is to add value to other people. Value is anything that increases the chances that the other person will achieve what he or she wants to achieve. With this value every employee regardless of title becomes a value-adder for customers.

Here are three commonly stated values that I think need to be rethought:

Value #1: Integrity

Almost every organization states “Integrity” as one of their values. Integrity means doing what you think is the right thing to do even if no one else is watching.

Imagine an employee who thinks that doing the right thing is calling customers up and telling them that they should not buy the company’s new product because the competitor makes a better product.

Is the employee’s boss going to say, “You acted with integrity, and that is great”? I doubt it. I think it’s more likely the employee will be reprimanded or fired.

If you say you value integrity, you might be guiding your employees to major problems within the organization. Integrity is a matter of opinion. I suggest it’s better to emphasize discussions with other people to land on an agreement of what is the right thing.

Value #2: Honesty

Imagine an employee who thinks that being honest means telling the CEO in front of a group of people he dresses sloppily and comes across as a pig.

Is the CEO going to say, “Thanks for your honesty”? I doubt it.

Again, while it sounds good to say “honesty” is one of your organizational values, I think a more accurate statement of what companies want is “awareness generated through conversations.”

Value #3: The customer is always right.

This one can reach ridiculous proportions. I worked at a frozen custard stand for my summer job while I was in college. We had a policy that you could turn the milkshakes called concretes over, and that nothing would come out. That was only if there was only one flavor in the concrete. A customer ordered a concrete with three flavors which made it very soft. Then he stood in the parking lot, turned it over, and then yelled at one of my peers and demanded his money back when the milkshake made a huge mess. I told him to leave immediately and didn’t give him any refund. The customer is not always right.

Now it’s your turn to clarify the values you want determining the behaviors in your organization. Do this with the other key leaders in your organization. Gain input in this process from people throughout your organization. This doesn’t mean you have to include every person’s thoughts in the final version, but I do encourage you to consider every person’s thoughts.

Write down clearly what the group has decided are the desired values of your organization from now on.

Reinforce Your Selected Values in Everything You Do

This whole process of creating your desired culture falls apart if you don’t consistently reinforce the vital importance of the values you have selected. In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, vitality means “power of enduring, capacity to live and develop, and physical and mental vigor especially when highly developed.” A vital organization lives up to its stated values on a consistent basis.

It is now up to you to reinforce the three to five values you have agreed upon with others that need to drive behaviors in your organization. This is all about leadership, the ability to influence how other people think so they make decisions that improve results in a sustainable way.

Model the Values

The fastest way to reinforce the desired culture is for you to actually act in accordance with the stated organizational values. The fastest way to ruin the desired culture is for you to act in ways that are opposite to your stated organizational values.

I was a board member of a not-for-profit organization. The Executive Director said, “Our culture is based on collaboration. We need an open discussion between staff members and board members. We’re going to have a special meeting to discuss the future of the organization.” It took me almost an hour to get from my front door to the meeting room. We all sat down to have this big discussion. Five minutes later, and I’m not exaggerating about the five minutes, the Executive Director said, “I’ve heard your thoughts, and realistically we only have one direction to go, and that is to continue what we’ve been doing the last ten years.” A beautiful example of ruining a desired culture.

Deliver Values-Driven Messages

You can also reinforce your desired culture by what you highlight in your messages to the people in your organization. Whatever examples you highlight says to the rest of the organization what is really important. If you want “great teamwork” and you always highlight the same person over and over, you are sending a contradictory message.

Connect Financial Rewards with Your Stated Values

The same goes with bonuses and rewards. What you reward is what you are saying is important in your culture. Regardless of what is posted on the wall, if you reward innovation and disregard day-to-day operations than you are not about operational excellence.

Everything you do and everything you say emphasizes something over something else. I encourage you to know clearly the values that you want driving behaviors in your organization, and then consciously make decisions and statements and behaviors that reinforce those desired underlying beliefs about what is really important in your organization.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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