It’s that thing everyone feels but no one can quite define. You can sense it, but you may not be able to express it. It’s at work within every group of people at all times. It is too often ignored yet impossible to avoid. Of course, I’m talking about culture. Culture is the intangible dynamic constantly at work among people in a group. It’s the way people behave—the way we speak to one another, the way we respond to friction, the way we celebrate and disagree, the way we interact and solve problems. There’s no eluding it, no way to avoid its influence.
Culture is of utmost importance. And though we cannot escape it, we can shape it. As leaders, we cannot afford to allow the culture of our organizations to be determined by natural defaults. Whatever it is you lead—a team, a division, a department, a franchise, a family—one of the greatest uses of your time will be to clarify, define, shape, and reinforce the culture of your group. Left to ourselves, people tend to slip into unhealthy habits and fall back on unexamined routines. Nothing great was built by mistake. If you are going to develop a healthy culture within your team, it is going to require extreme intentionality and effort.
Here are three ways you can create a compelling culture within your sphere of influence.
1. Define Who You Are (and Who You’re Not)
The first challenge you will face in shaping culture is defining it. You can’t show people what you’re looking for until you’ve taken the time and put in the work to figure out exactly what that is. Not an approximation. Not a vague explanation. A clear and specific vision. Bad culture is one of the greatest sources of frustration—both for leaders and for teams—but, in order to see things improve, leaders must allow their frustrations to drive them beyond complaining about how people around them are behaving to clarifying—first for themselves, then for others—what exactly they want people to do. Before you can be it, you need to see it. Before they can emulate it, you need to create it.
Before we even launched weekly services at VOUS, one of the first things we did was to get crystal clear on who we wanted to be. In fact, we knew who we wanted to be long before there was a “we” at all. Before there was a launch team, before our first public interest meeting, before we hosted a Sunday gathering, DawnCheré and I had listed out our seven core values:
Jesus: is our message
People: are our heart
Generosity: is our privilege
Excellence: is our spirit
Servant Leadership: is our identity
Honor: is our calling
Passion: is our pursuit
These core values are our guiding principles at VOUS. They influence and inform everything we do. Our values provide vision. Vision creates passion. Passion drives performance.
Not long after we launched, we created our VOUS Culture Guide. Along with our values, this short document contains cultural language—things we say (and don’t say), names of our church locations and events, key cultural phrases. We don’t want our staff and servant leaders to have to figure it out for themselves. We know that if we make the target abundantly clear our team will be much more likely to hit it.
2. Be What You Want to See
Once you have defined your culture, you need to embody it. You have to be what you want to see. People hear what you say but they see what you do. One of the most powerful forms of leadership is leadership by example. The people you oversee want to win—they want to be part of a healthy team that works together effectively to take on challenges, face opposition, and accomplish goals. But what they need is a picture. They need to see what it looks like. They need an object lesson. Before you expect them to embody the culture, you have to embody the culture. Leaders always go first.
Which of your team’s bad habits did they learn from you? You want people to be on time. Are you on time? You want people to work hard. Do you demonstrate the work ethic you want to see in your staff? Those you lead will take their cues from you. Don’t demand anything of someone else you don’t first require of yourself. Responsibilities will vary. You don’t have to do everything, but you need to show your team this is how we do it here. If you will embody the culture, your team will embrace it too.
3. Correct and Celebrate Constantly
After defining and embodying your culture, perhaps the greatest way to reinforce it is to correct and celebrate constantly. Whenever a behavior is misaligned with your values, call it out and correct it. Whenever someone acts exactly as you hope everyone would, get loud about it and celebrate it. What gets rewarded, gets repeated. What gets corrected, gets adjusted. You’re not doing anyone a favor by ignoring their bad behavior. (See my recent thoughts on Changing Confrontation’s Connotation.) Celebration validates the individual and reinforces the culture for those who are watching.
Culture is too critical to leave to chance. People don’t know what you expect until you tell them. The clearer you are, the likelier they are to meet your expectations. When you tell them they’ve hit the mark or failed to measure up, the picture becomes even clearer. People want to know what’s expected of them and we all want to live and work in a positive, healthy, inspiring environment. You can give that to the people you lead. You can create a space that sets people up to succeed. But it will not happen by default. If you will commit to intentionally investing in your culture, you—and everyone you influence—will reap the rewards of your effort for years to come.