And So Goes the Culture…

business cultureIn my approach to business an organization’s culture is absolutely critical. I’ve written multiple blogs about it, and talked about how to create a great culture in my book, Putting Together the Entrepreneurial Puzzle, (in Chapter 2, “Intentional Culture”). Lately I have started wondering how a company gets started down a path toward extraordinary culture, dysfunctional culture, or just an ordinary culture. What I’ve come up with is that it starts with one action, one statement or one intent and it’s not always as conscious, positive or empowering as one would hope.

Think about the so-called “Arab Spring,” which was inspiring and brought hope to so many. Unfortunately, it also showed that without strong support and infrastructure, an idea, belief, or even vision could be brought down by those who had another idea and ultimately, more power be it good or bad.

People will follow when a good idea, ideal or movement gets started. They will also follow when a bad one gets started for a variety of reasons – hopelessness and hopefulness are among them – as well as many others. Remember that people do things for their reasons, not ours. The culture at Zappos has been written about many times as an example of a great culture that inspires great performance in the employees and therefore for the company. Tony Hsieh is widely credited for setting the tone and inspiring the great performance that is in actuality largely regulated by the employees themselves. Because the Zappos’ culture was so strong and such a contribution to the successful performance of the company, when they were purchased, the culture remained intact and performance continues to be above average for similar companies. So in this case the leader set the tone and let the employees carry it out, however he continued to inspire and guide.

My point is that if you’ve ever watched a herd of animals move, if the leader moves, they all do. So eyes are always on the leader to provide the “context” for the action, movement or directional change. Employees are always watching for clues as the directional change can happen from one day to the next. If the changes are too great or too often, employees hunker down and hope it all stops. Ultimately they will leave when the pain of staying in the situation is greater than the pain of finding something new.

As the leader, it’s important to take a step back and realize that your actions, or inaction have a dramatic effect on your “herd,” so it’s important to be intentional about it. And it’s critical to understand that your actions become the culture as quickly as you can blink. People are very smart, very observant, and will rise to the occasion to be a part of something inspirational and meaningful. They will do the minimal to get by when the situation is otherwise. Even worse, they may join in the dysfunction because it has become sanctioned.

Take a look around and see what’s going on in your organization. What one action can you do to change or encourage the right behavior to support extraordinary performance? The herd will follow.