The Only Word That Truly Defines Every Company’s Culture

Forget slogans and posters. Forget mission statements. Forget culture decks.

Culture is partly what you encourage, but culture is mostly what you permit.

What you accept. What you allow. What you let people get away with.

What you, as an owner or leader, let yourself get away with.

Take, for example, the way many leaders make promotion decisions.

A 2018 survey conducted by the research and consulting firm Great Place to Work of more than 400,000 people found that when employees feel promotion decisions are managed effectively, they are more than twice as likely to give extra effort at work. In addition, when employees feel promotion decisions are managed effectively, they are more than five times as likely to feel the people making those decisions act with integrity.

As a result, at those companies employee turnover rates tend to be half that of other businesses in the same industry. Productivity, innovation, and growth metrics also tend to be higher. And at public companies, stock returns tend to be nearly three times the market average.

Yep: One seemingly minor leadership aspect can create a significant major positive — or negative — impact on how a business operates.

Granted, you didn’t need research to tell you that.

Work for a boss who promotes his buddies and you’ll focus on managing your boss. Work for a boss who promotes based on seniority and you’ll bide your time as you wait for your turn. Productivity, quality, innovation, teamwork — all the things you say you want, and that make a difference in your business, take a back seat.

All because you let yourself get away with using poor or lazy criteria for making promotion decisions.

If productivity drives your business, promote people who excel at getting the right things done — and who excel at working with and through other people to get the right things done. If teamwork drives your business, promote people who excel at collaborating, creating effective formal and informal teams, and helping others build the short- and long-term networks that help them succeed.

The same is true for what a boss of mine called “errors of leadership omission”: failing to act when you should have. 

Look the other way when the salesperson who generates a disproportionate share of revenue uses his perceived “status” to treat admin staff poorly, and you permit a culture where dignity and respect is no longer a given. Look the other way when people take credit for the ideas — and sometimes even the work — of others, and you permit a culture where the ability to manage up becomes a meaningful metric.

Look the other way when the voice highest on the hierarchy “wins” and you permit a culture where the source of opinion matters more than the quality of opinion — which naturally stifles the creativity, engagement, and inclusion you claim to value.

Take a hard look at the behaviors and values you encourage.

Take an even harder look at the behaviors and values you permit.

Because the things you encourage may frame your culture, but the things you permit truly define your culture.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

News Reporter

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