De Novo Exclusive: “Where Does Good Culture Come From?” by GrowthPlay Founder Deborah Knupp

November 8, 2021

Deborah Knupp is the Managing Director of GrowthPlay, a research-based sales effectiveness consulting and training firm. She has 30 years of experience as a business development expert working with leaders in the legal, manufacturing, accounting and financial services to align their people and business objectives to create cultures based on the principles of accountability and integrity.

Organizational culture is a curious construct. Every workplace has a culture, whether its leaders intentionally create it or not. And while it’s easy to identify a dysfunctional culture that grows from toxic (or absent) leadership, many cultures suffer from a more nuanced disconnect between who they say they are and what life is really like for the people who work there. Even healthy, thriving cultures — an achievement to be celebrated, especially in the legal industry! — are not self-perpetuating. Whether a leader is starting with a deficit or simply trying to hold on to hard-won gains, the secret to creating and sustaining a good organizational culture is to do it on purpose.

Leaders must understand how they are designing their cultures to “be” and what they are designing their culture to “do” — and continue to reflect and communicate “why” culture matters. Though there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for success, here are some powerful steps all leaders can take to build a thriving and sustainable workplace:

Make core values operational. Most firms promote an official set of “core values” internally, yet few of them take the additional step of explicitly translating those values into a code of behavior to make values visible in action. The core values stay isolated in the abstract and in the platitudes that do not necessarily translate into the actions or behaviors that become visible within the culture.

For example, many organizations embrace a value like “We respect the individual,” yet team members may have different ideas about how to live out that value. Translated into a code of behavior, “We respect the individual” might become “We talk to, not about, people” — meaning that our culture does not tolerate unproductive gossip or back-channel talk. Cultures that talk to, not about, people will address miscommunication or frustration directly with colleagues, focusing on collaborative solutions. Of course, each organization must tailor its operational definition as needed, and the focus should be on clearly articulating how to “be and do” the behavior that stems from the core value.

Another common core value is “We value a learning culture.” That could mean so many different things. Leaders who want to realize this value could increase learning in their cultures by translating this value into a code of behavior. For example, “We celebrate failure as an opportunity for learning, and talking about failure is how we learn” would provide a visible personification of a “learning culture.”  An organization adopting this value and behavior may also support its expression through “failure forum” meetings, where people can share and celebrate failures and lessons learned. Leaders do well to set the example and share first in demonstrating the behavior to make it safe for the rest of the team to follow.

John Wooden famously said, “The true test of character is what we do when no one is watching.” The true test of an organization’s core values is how employees live them out within their teams, in one-on-one interactions and across the remote work environment when they are working independently. If the actual culture on the ground does not match the organization’s core values, it’s time to make a more explicit code of behavior.

Read the rest of Deborah’s article on De Novo.