Better Culture From Within

“Culture has to start at the top, with the CEO. Without the right executive buy-in, great culture isn’t possible. And culture change without the CEO? Forget it.”


I’m not so sure. This sentiment feels a little bit like the fixed mindset to me. In business, organizations constantly face challenges that impact their culture, and no company is perfect. Within even the most‘culturally challenged’ companies, there are always pockets of amazing culture. Even if hidden and operating in the shadows of more significant cultural challenges, we can always find areas where people focus on purpose, living values, and emphasizing people growth.

So, what do you think? In the face of a surrounding environment that produces a toxic, tribally focused, or sometimes worse, passive-aggressive culture, can a stand-alone team create change? Without the CEO and executive team driving the change, can one group build an energizing and growth-oriented culture that slowly spreads throughout the organization?

I believe it can. If culture is our beliefs and behaviors at scale, with the right example of how new beliefs and behavior can improve our results, people will change, improve, and grow. They just need someone to show them how.

One individual can have a widespread impact, even if they are not the CEO, by becoming a living example of that positive behavior.

Look around you. Do you like what you see? Maybe even more important to ask: do you like how you feel? Are you happy with the environment you are a part of? The most effective way to get started on the path to creating positive change is by first looking at ourselves. Rather than pointing fingers, placing blame, and complaining about those around us, we need to honestly assess how we impact the culture. When we look from within as leaders and identify what we need to improve on, we are making the first courageous choice for ourselves and the organization.

To break from the status quo and ignite change takes a bold first step. We not only have to be willing to look in the mirror, but we also have to invite our team to be honest about what they see in our image as well. To be clear, this process is so much easier to write about than to actually do. Frankly, it’s terrifying and scary as all hell. How does the saying go? It’s going to get worse before it gets better…

We need to come to grips with that if we live within a negatively oriented culture, it’s likely we also play a role in negatively affecting others. Once we get past the shock of how we actually impact our team, what lives on the other side is beautiful. We can develop a clear plan for change.

With a more robust understanding of our behavior in tow, we need to build an effective strategy to become the person we want to be at work.

To make it actionable and straightforward, here are four strategies to help you build the culture you want by taking the first courageous step to creating change, by changing yourself first.

Look in the mirror.

To look into the mirror is to be willing to look within yourself to create change. First, reflect on proud moments and low moments and ask yourself what you need to improve. We all should have some idea about what we do well and what we need to change.

Next is the real work of creating change. We need to build a safe environment where people will tell us what they think. Many leaders ask for feedback and assume what they get back is truthful. Few take the time to make sure they create an environment of authentic and honest communication. Without thoughtful work to create honest dialogue, people are probably going easy on us. If their feedback doesn’t make your heart rate go up, palms sweat, or give you that special pit in your stomach, they probably aren’t being honest with you.

From Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead, we get started in this work by asking, “What would everyone need to feel they can speak freely for the next 45 mins?” [1] Once you have established the right environment, ask people these questions:

  • What does better support from me look like in our environment?
  • How do I personally need to change to create a better team culture?
  • Where else can I improve?

Remember, your job is not to solve all of their problems in one conversation. Your job is to listen and determine what changes you can make to your behavior that would positively impact the group in the long run.

Build Your Behavior Offense

From their feedback, translate what people need from you into clear behavior. Give it language and create habits you can live and practice every day. A great example that commonly surfaces is a need for more praise and recognition. Building a positive behavior offense means asking yourself when, where, and how you will acknowledge, spotlight, and highlight your peoples’ wins. Giving this behavior language and schedule makes it easy to remind yourself to become the new you.

An advanced tactic is to tell your team—out-loud and all the time—precisely what you plan on doing differently. Even better, invite them to hold you accountable.

Build Your Behavior Defense

Many would say the offense of building better leadership behavior is the easy part. It’s when problems come up, challenges arise, and pressure situations come into focus that the hard work starts. In these moments, language helps. Proactively label the person you don’t want to become in intense moments and coach yourself through the situation. “I am triggered right now, don’t be ‘toxic culture Steve,’ be the Steve with high character that will have a positive impact on the organization.”

Give It Language and Go Viral

When you have changed behavior in a lasting and sustainable way, you have effectively changed your team culture. Give the new culture you are living language and take it viral. Maybe you anchor to existing company values or start to speak the words of Brene Brown, Simon Sinek, or Liz Wiseman. Whatever it is, if it helped your team, it can help others. Giving people an example of better culture and new language to explain it gives them new options in behavior and creates a path for them to experience the change you did.

Do you know what CEOs and executives love? Amazing business results. How do we get fantastic business results? We model better behavior and create better environments. We take the leap of faith that if we take care of our people, they will take care of our results. When this happens, we get better results, people take notice, and positive culture goes viral. So, invest, create your plan, and build your success story. Let’s go!

Want to learn more? Join us for our free virtual workshop, How to Build Effective Culture, here.

Compass Questions

  1. What is the current state of your company culture? Are there things you are unsatisfied with? Have you been living in a fixed mindset of ‘it is what it is’?
  2. When is the last time you have intentionally leaned in to ask for feedback about how you impact the culture?
  3. What behavior change do you need to live out to create a more positive culture?
  4. What language can you give your new behavior that would impact the organization around you?

Written by Steve Wasik

Photo by Inga Gezalian on Unsplash