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By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

Culture eats strategy for lunch, claimed Peter Drucker.

Like the proverbial drunk searching for his keys under the light—rather than in the dark place where he dropped them—most managers search for business success under their strategy rather than in their culture.

Who could blame them? Culture seems like an ethereal concept, difficult to grasp and impossible to design.

But culture need not be a dark place where only fluffy concepts lie. Culture can be clearly defined, and easily established.

Culture, Crystal Clear

Lets define culture as the set of beliefs people hold about the way in which we do things around here.

Culture is the set of expectations that members of an organization hold aboutwhat one has to think, say and do in order to be one of us.

Equally, culture is the set of beliefs about what one cannot do or say if one wants to remain one of us. We call these beliefs “taboos.”

Culture is neither written in official documents, nor expressed in leaders’ speeches. Culture lives in the minds of the people who live it. It is not what anyone says, but what everyone understands. It is mostly subconscious, a mental map of how to proceed in alignment with the group’s customs.

Culture is learned by example. Just like children learn the culture of their family by observing their parents, new members learn the culture of their group by observing their leaders. People in power have succeeded. So anyone who wants to achieve a good standing will emulate the behaviors of those who reached the top.

Organizations are always tempted to impart culture as a lesson. Mission, vision, core values, rules of behavior, and other imperatives are dutifully presented as culture pillars. However, leaders would be better served heeding Ralph Waldo Emerson’s warning, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

So how can you set the right culture?

As Easy as 1, 2, 3

You can set culture through a three-step process:

1. Define the standards
2. Demonstrate the standards
3. Demand the standards

1. Define the standards

Have a conversation with your team where you define together the ways of thinking, speaking and acting that you all want to enact. These are the ways in which you will implement your strategy, achieve your mission, and realize your vision. Choose them carefully.

Although anyone could initiate this conversation, it is normally the leader who takes the first step. I have found that the best standard-setting conversations follow this pattern:

1.a. Propose

Explain why you think your standard can help the group work more effectively. For example, I start my workshops with this proposal: “In order to better work together, I suggest that we all put our phones in silent mode, and that we do not use them within the room. If someone needs to answer a call or check messages, he or she can step out and do it.”

1.b. Check

Make sure that everybody agrees that the standard is workable and truly improves effectiveness. For example, after my suggestion I add, “Is that acceptable to you?” If people say “yes,” we move on. But this is not a perfunctory step. It is quite possible that someone might have a problem with the suggestion. In that case, a negotiation is in order.

For example, a participant might say, “Sorry Fred. I’m expecting an important email that requires an urgent response. I’m happy to step out of the room to read it and reply to it, but it would be terribly cumbersome to stand up and leave every time my phone vibrates. I’d like to be able to quickly look and see if it’s the important email. If it is, I’ll step out. If it isn’t, I’ll wait till the break to read it.”

1.c. Commit

At the end of the negotiation, ask people to make a commitment. As I explained in Are You Making This Mistake…? , admonishments or agreements mean nothing if they don’t turn into commitments. What binds people to behave in a certain way is their word. A promise is the crucial step to engage people’s integrity. That’s why the standard cannot be just a request, or even worse, an imposition. It needs to be a collective commitment.

In my workshops, after the negotiation I conclude, “We have agreed that we will keep our phones silent. That we might look at them to see who’s calling or what message is arriving, but that anything requiring more than a few seconds we will do outside of the room. Unless someone understands it differently, let’s make this a commitment.”

2. Demonstrate the standards

You must give the example. You must behave according to the standard. If you don’t, not only you will destroy the commitment, you will also destroy the team’s integrity. Nothing creates more cynicism than a leader who says one thing and does another, especially when he or she demands that people do as he or she says.

Imagine what would be the effect in my workshop, if five minutes into it, my phone rang, I took the call, and had a conversation in front of the room. Devastating.

People can have different interpretations of what the commitment might imply in a specific situation. It is possible that you believe you are behaving in line with the standard, and someone else doesn’t believe so. In that case, it is crucial to discuss the difference of opinion. The permission to challenge anybody who seems to break the standard, especially the leader, is a crucial standard itself.

In my workshops, I encourage people to express any questions they might have about my behavior. I explain that my commitment is firm, but at times I may make a mistake or act unconsciously, and that I welcome people challenging me to discuss if I am aligned or not with the behavioral promise I made.

The leader can make a mistake, but he or she cannot refuse to discuss the possible mistake without destroying the standard.

3. Demand the standards

As important as demonstrating the standard is demanding that others do the same. If you don’t, you will destroy the commitment, and the team’s integrity, as surely as if you had broken the standard.

Imagine what would be the effect in my workshop, if five minutes into it, your phone rang, you took the call in front of me, and I didn’t say anything. It would be as devastating as if I had taken the call.

The leader must be a guardian of the standard—“a” but not “the” guardian. It is crucial that every member of the team feel empowered and committed to demand the standard from every other member of the team. This is because the promise to behave according to the standard is not to the leader, but to every member of the group. The role of the leader is not just to demand the standard, but also to demand that every member demand the standard from every other member of the group.

You don’t need to be a formal leader to shape the culture of your team. Just the opposite: when you take responsibility to shape the culture of your team, you become a leader.

Readers:  What standard might improve the effectiveness of your team? What would you propose to improve performance, relationships, or people’s well being? Try out the conversation, and let us know how it goes. By sharing your suggestion and experience in the comments below you will help many other LinkedIn members who can propose it to their teams.

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