I strongly believe that a leader’s primary responsibility is to establish and protect the culture of their family, team, or organization. The culture is the set of core values, beliefs, and behaviors that define the way in which their people will operate.
Culture is never aspirational. If I want to have a culture of honor on my team, I cannot simply aspire to have it—I must intentionally create the experience of honor so that it to begin to impact the lives of the people around me.
Culture also takes time to develop. I see growing and shaping a culture like keeping a greenhouse or a garden. As the leader, it’s my job to carefully and intentionally cultivate the values, beliefs, and behaviors I will plant and nurture, as well as correcting or removing any that would keep them from flourishing.
In my experience and observation, successful leaders do 3 things that establish and protect an organizational culture, creating consistency and safety that allow people to develop and flourish.
Step 1: Define Core Values, Beliefs, and Behaviors
About four years ago, our leadership team hired a coach to walk us through the process of defining our vision, mission, and core values as an organization. Thankfully, defining our core values was fairly easy for us—but it wasn’t enough. We also needed to define the beliefs and behaviors that aligned with these values.
For example, one of our core values was healthy relationships. Our value statement says, “We sacrificially invest in life-giving relationships in both our natural and spiritual families. We honor people by seeing them as God created them to be; and cultivate heart connection through clear communication, understanding, and vulnerability.”
As we hammered out what it meant to invest in relationships, see people as God created them, and cultivate heart connection, we found that one of the key areas we needed to define was our approach to confrontation and conflict. In the past, we had seen how relationships suffered when “honor” looked like avoiding confrontation and being passive in working through conflict. We agreed that we needed to establish and communicate the strong belief that honor looked like being powerful in confronting issues, giving clear feedback, and resolving conflict.
Step 2: Demonstrate Behaviors
I think many leaders back off from sufficiently defining their cultural core values, beliefs, and behaviors because of what comes next. The moment they communicate what they expect from others, a mirror and spotlight are pointing right back at them. Leaders must be the first to demonstrate the behavior they expect from others!
When it came to this specific issue of establishing powerful communication and confrontation in our organizational culture, each member of our core team came face to face with our own weaknesses in this area. This discovery process was not comfortable!
In my own case, I actually thought I was pretty good at conflict and confrontation—until I saw that I wasn’t that good. A number of situations exposed that I still defaulted to avoiding conflict, backing away from hard conversations, or not fully communicating what I was thinking and feeling, settling for superficial peace. In these situations, I was allowing a value of self-protection to supersede my value for healthy relationships, undermining the culture of honor I wanted to carry and create around me. I had to do the work of confronting the fears driving my self-protection and courageously establish new habits of self-awareness, feedback, and brave communication so I could ensure that my behavior was consistent with my relational values. It was scary and uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary and worth it!
One of the things I celebrate most about my core team is that each of us have paid a price to overcome areas of inconsistency in our behavior for the sake of the culture we are building. Each of my colleagues has willingly gotten honest about their leadership strengths and weaknesses, critically evaluated their behavior, sought to understand the impact that they are having on the team, and committed to a journey of growth, coaching, and accountability. We have all done the work to be able to demonstrate the behavior we want to see from everyone in our culture.
Step 3: Delegate Ownership
One of the fears most of us on the leadership team had to overcome was that confrontation would cause people to reject relationship with us or be afraid of us as leaders. In fact, the opposite happened. Letting people know how we felt about them or were experiencing them increased security in our relationships. They knew they were valued and appreciated, but they also began to trust that we would tell them areas where they needed to grow or adjust.
That level of safety invited them to start reciprocating the same behaviors. Our staff members began to come to us when they were struggling, ask for help, and even contribute their own feedback on how our choices were affecting them. They also began to follow our lead in embracing a journey of self-awareness and growth, actively seeking feedback and taking responsibility for the impact they were having on others. When problems came up, they began to pursue conversation rather than backing away, causing us to learn to pull together to create solutions rather than allowing the issues to pull us apart.
During one memorable training series, we discussed our personal history and personality profiles around conflict and confrontation, discussed what contributed to create an environment of trust, and together built a collective conflict agreement—a set of guidelines that we agreed we would follow any time that difficulty arose between any of us. Each member of our team is equally empowered to bring accountability around our agreement, which means ownership of the culture has been transferred to the team, not just carried by the leadership. They now police it themselves requiring me to handle fewer and fewer of the hard conversations myself!
Delight in Results
There is nothing more delightful and rewarding for me as a leader than seeing a team of people carry and create the culture of our organization—and the impact is having not only at work, but in their entire lives.
Just this week, I asked one of our staff members what benefit or fruit he has experienced in his life as a result of being on our team and working in our culture. In the three years that I’ve known him, I’ve watched Peter change from a self-described “fighter” in conflict to someone who can manage his fear and protect connection when communicating through difficult issues. It thrilled me to hear that these changes were carrying over into his family relationships.
“I have never worked in a place like this,” Peter told me. “It has changed the way I think about the workplace. Being surrounded by the expectation to be powerful has brought awareness into the places where I needed help. As I got help and started to grow, I began to get brave. It changed the way I handled conflict, disagreement, and dysfunction within my extended family. I now react in a way that is completely opposite from what they expect and it’s changing the way we have functioned our entire life. When they try to get me to fight back, I simply won’t, which is causing them to evaluate the way they do things and changing the way they react. Seeing the impact of these values on my family has completely changed the way I think about the workplace and I now carry ownership for our culture wherever I go.”
For our staff, our culture is no longer the church’s culture, or the leaders’ culture. It is theirs. They are alert and quick to address any behaviors that go against the values we have established, and show anyone new “this is how we do things around here.” They own and protect the culture because it is precious to them, and they don’t want to lose it! As a result, our culture is stronger than ever.