The 'C' Word

The word 'culture' is often thrown around in the context of teams and organisations. Everybody is talking about culture. Despite being a nebulous term and intangible in nature, culture is cited over and over again by teams and organisations. Everybody seems to be in agreement that culture is critical to success in different realms, even if we are not necessarily clear on what it is. Culture is simultaneously cited as both the root cause and universal solution to all ills. In this post we will try to get a handle on the 'C' word. More importantly we will attempt to get to the bottom of what creates culture, and explore how we might go about effecting a change in team or organisational culture.


Almost every company has a mission statement. It has seemingly become important for teams and organisations to publicly declare their 'core values'. A couple of years ago, a national sports organisation that I had some dealings with went one step further and proudly shared their 'culture plan'.

It is a wonder that teams and oganisations are so quick to make these declarations, seemingly unconscious of what is at stake. It is like an incantation, as if reciting the words will miraculously make it so. Yet this act of declaration can have major consequences. Invoking the words and committing them to paper raises the stakes exponentially.

We need to choose our words carefully when we are speaking of culture and related aspects. This is the case particularly when they are the right words.


Culture is said to be values-based and purpose-driven. Many extend this logic to assume that we simply need to declare our values and define our purpose, et voila! Culture sorted! Sadly, this is not so...

As with the ubiquitous mission statement, we now hear the terms 'core values' and 'purpose' incessantly. Yet it is only recently that I have come across a definition (courtesy of Jim Collins in his book 'Good to Great').

To paraphrase, core values are those we will not compromise under any circumstances. By this definition, very few teams or organisations exhibit core values in practice.

Similarly, what constitutes our 'core purpose' is that which we will not waver from under any circumstances. Once again, such unwavering purpose is very rarely demonstrated in action.


As we spoke about, making a grand declaration is inherently a high risk strategy. Once we have stated our intent, there must be action to back it up, otherwise such bold statements can soon prove fatal for our credibility. In failing to match words with action, many great 'culture change' endeavours are frequently doomed from the outset.

Actions always trump words. Absolutely all members of the team or staff must have clarity around what standards and behaviours are expected from them. But once again, these standards and behaviours must also be demonstrated in the actions of those in leadership positions.

Declaring values (and outlining desired behaviours) is easy. In the majority of cases, what has been declared, be it 'core values', 'core purpose', or 'shared vision', is not reflected in day-to-day actions.

In order to be reflected in the culture of the team or organisation these elements must be evident in daily practice. Almost invariably there is a failure of implementation.


To make change requires both the readiness and also the opportunity to determine the present reality.

The challenge for those at the top of any organisation is that there is inevitably some degree of separation from what is happening on the ground. There are other challenges to contend with for those seeking to learn the unvarnished truth. One such challenge is that team members and staff will tend to tell those in leadership positions what they assume they want to hear. Another challenge is the tendency for staff members to 'manage up', and paint a more favourable picture than what is evident in reality.

Those in leadership positions must be mindful of these challenges, and ready to be resourceful in their intelligence-gathering efforts.

Red flag mechanisms offer a way to help remain in touch with the reality on the ground. The protocol is that any member of the team, regardless of seniority, is able to flag issues or alert the leadership to anything pertinent at any time, and there are no sanctions for doing so.

Clearly, in order for this to work team members or staff must have confidence that they will be heard (and that there is some readiness to take action based on the intelligence provided). They must also have faith that there will not be any sanctions or negative consequences to coming forward. One way to encourage confidence might be to provide an option to provide information anonymously.


It is true that values steer behaviours. However it is naive to assume that what a person or organisation declares to be their values will automatically be reflected in their actions. Rather the behaviours we observe (particularly during interactions with those who can do them no harm) shed light on the true values of the person (or organisation). @@Actions are more illuminating than words@@.

It is a similar scenario when it comes to purpose. Being part of something greater than oneself is a route to commitment and meaning. However, this assumes a level of humility. A prerequisite is the ability and willingness to put ego aside.

A person's true commitment to the cause can be observed, particularly at times when they think nobody is watching. If a member of the team (or leadership group) is ego-driven and motivated by their own status invariably this will be reflected in their actions. In this way, a person's true 'core purpose' is generally clear to the skilled observer, regardless of what has been declared.

Paradoxically, those who say the words most often tend to be the people who fail to act accordingly - or indeed may behave in a manner that is contrary to the ideals espoused. Parroting the words becomes a tactic; they are used as armour to protect the individual from the consequences of their contrary actions that inevitably follow.

Conversely those who exemplify the desired team ethos rarely feel the need to say the words.

So take note of those vigorously nodding during team meetings when matters of culture are being discussed. There is a chance that these people are your problem.


Let us briefly return to Jim Collins' study of organisations who made the transition from good to great. What was observed is that it all begins with finding the right people; thereafter momentum builds from purposeful action. Interestingly, the authors observed that under these conditions 'alignment' with team values and purpose largely takes care of itself, without the need for any special strategy or investment of resources.

The authors put the personnel piece of the jigsaw in more simple terms: make sure you have the right people on the bus; next make sure they’re in the right seats. However, the inescapable corollary of this proposition, which was also observed in practice, is that the leadership also must identify those who do not demonstrate the right character and behaviours and take appropriate action. Using the previous analogy, the leadership must get the 'wrong' people off the bus.

Instilling 'core values' and 'core purpose' into the culture of the team ultimately requires the discipline and the will to eject those who are contrary to these ideals (and/or do not meet standards required). This applies particularly to those in the upper echelons.

Those people who are the problem, or an obstacle to the solution (or both), are often star performers otherwise. The reticence of the leadership to get rid star of a player is understandable; however, this is also the biggest impediment to effecting any real change.


Always it is beguilingly easy to take the soft option. On the surface it often seems far less stressful to take the compromise option. We need to recognise this for what it is. At best we are failing to uphold standards; at worse we are actively appeasing or indulging those who are the issue. Funnily enough this strategy never helps our situation.

Whilst it might appear less pain in the short term, ultimately the cost in terms of ongoing damage to the wider team is far greater.

An analogy is a choice between amputating the limb (to eradicate the disease), versus death by a thousand cuts. The former scenario admittedly involves considerable short term pain; however we live to fight another day and rebuild having resolved the issue once and for all. In practice the latter scenario (death by a thousand cuts) is most often preferred, after all the prospect involves far lesser short term pain; albeit in doing so we ignore the fact that the ultimate outcome is we end up dead.

So often we prefer to defer acting until another day, in some distant hope that the issue will spontaneously resolve itself. This delusion is comforting. Moreover, for those in the hot seat, deferring or deciding not to act is clearly less discomfiting. Once again, we need to appreciate the consequences that are borne by others while we delay.


As we have spoken about, the values and purpose that are declared must be authentic. These ideals must also be rigorously adhered to. Vision and purpose are largely meaningless in the absence of standards.

Culture is defined by the day-to-day conduct and behaviours of all members of the team, but particularly those in leadership positions. We must demonstrate values and purpose through our own actions. By extension we must hold those from the top down accountable to these standards.

Indeed it is crucial that those at the top of the organisations are held to a higher standard. Those in positions of influence have a major bearing on organisational culture. They have proportionally greater scope to influence (or impede) culture change; and their actions impact a greater number of people within the team or organisation.

@@Just because it is common sense does not mean it is common practice@@
— Gilbert Enoka

Whilst most follow this logic, very rarely are these principles applied in practice. Tenure and standing in the organisation almost invariably confers privileged and protected status.

Failing to be consistent when it comes to the crunch is fatal to our credibility and the legitimacy of the leadership. Those who believe in the purpose most fervently will be the first to become disenchanted when see those ideals being violated without any consequences.

As noted, our task is not so much a matter 'creating alignment' or motivating the troops. Rather we must avoid demotivating or provoking disillusionment among the right people to take the team or organisation forwards. Ultimately this requires taking the necessary action to deal with problem team members, regardless of (and indeed because of) their status.

Standards must be consistently applied, not just when it suits us. It is naive in the extreme to think people aren’t watching.


Most often the problem is not that those leading the team do not possess the right values, but rather that we are simply not willing or able to summon the strength of will and conviction to do the hard part and translate our beliefs into action. Essentially those in leadership positions must have the stomach to do what is necessary.

There are some hallmark traits of leaders who are able to change organisational culture and take their team from mediocre to great. Chief among these is an indomitable professional will to do what is necessary, blended with uncommon personal humility.

Many otherwise good leaders essentially kill any chance of real progress with kindness. In essence they don’t have the heart to make discomfiting decisions, particularly when it comes taking action to jettison those who are toxic elements in the team environment.


Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice...
— Jim Collins, Author of 'Built to Last' and 'Good to Great'

To develop the idea framed in the above quote further, I would contend that greatness is in fact a matter of a series of conscious choices (followed by action) on a day-to-day basis.

@@Despite 'culture' having become ubiquitous in the language of teams and organisations, in reality the vast majority fail in the implementation@@.

Culture is not particularly complicated. But it does involve hard work every day. Developing or changing culture requires a great deal of will and conviction. In practice, it involves difficult decisions and discomfiting actions. It is understandable that the majority fail to execute, or rather choose the easy option, ultimately preferring not to execute.

Culture is a matter of actions rather than words. Establishing culture is a cumulative and iterative process. Borrowing from 'Good to Great' one final time, we can use the analogy of a heavy flywheel, whereby momentum very gradually builds as a result of impetus applied repetitively in a consistent manner over time.

Finally, those who truly wish to change culture have no need for declarations. We communicate our values and demonstrate our purpose in our daily actions. The grand statements and surrounding fanfare that typically heralds 'culture' initiatives are not only superfluous but may be counterproductive from a credibility viewpoint.