2 Drivers of Healthy (or Unhealthy) Culture

*culture blog Sep 01, 2021

You've heard the circular argument about the "chicken or the egg" and which came first. So, let's talk about something that matters to your organization.

Which comes first-- culture or behavior?

Does culture drive behavior?

Or does behavior drive culture?

Well, the answer, of course, is both.Culture is determined by the accumulation of all the behaviors in an organization. And, of course, behaviors define culture.

Every organization has a culture. And culture happens either by design or default.

We don’t have to try to build a culture in our organization. One already exists!


On one hand, the chicken come first: behaviors dictate a certain culture.

Culture happens.

(That would make a great bumper sticker, wouldn’t it?)

However, on the other hand, begin with the egg: culture can also drive behavior.

At the Vanderbloemen Search Group, one of their Cultural values is “Radical Responsiveness.” This cultural value drives their behavior day in and day out. They pride themselves on their radical responsiveness to their clients and they hold themselves accountable to that value.

Another organization I’m part of has a key value of FUN. Yes, FUN. They hold each other accountable to having fun, as well as each staff member being a fun person to be around. They don’t allow critical, or negative staff to hang around. I can honestly say I haven’t met a staff person there who is not fun to be around.


Culture should be backed up by behaviors!

We help leaders assess their organizational strengths and weaknesses through our Gears of Growth Model. One of the three gears is CULTURE. The other two are TEAM and SYSTEMS.

Let's evaluate two things which create a healthy-- or unhealthy-- culture. Health or unhealth will be determined by two things. And again, this can happen by-- 

  • Design (we intentionally do it), or
  • Default (we just let things occur)


#1 Driver = Intentionality 

The first determining factor is intentionality. Healthy culture doesn’t happen by accident.

You've probably heard some version of the phrase, "Culture trumps everything."

That's why this one is so important. 

The dominant driver of health and growth among teams in today’s leadership economy is, in fact, culture. So, we want to make sure we get it right.

Then, we want to insure that we maintain what we've built. That requires wanting it. and working for it.

the most common mistake leaders make is lack of clarity. This is especially true in “intangible” areas such as culture. 

We cannot assume people throughout the organization know what’s important.. Then, we need to continue re-telling them.

If you’re wondering about the culture you want, ask yourself of a few culture-defining questions. Things like— 

  •  Why do we love it here? 
  •  What do new people like when they come?
  •  What’s unique about this place?
  •  What keeps people here, or causes them to come back?
  •  What is very important to us?
  •  When things aren’t going well, what is normally the reason? 

The answers to these questions will often highlight cultural values. 



#2 Driver = Accountablity

Culture is often created by what is tolerated-- or allowed. Core values are often already “inside us,” waiting to spring forth. We can sense them in terms of what fuels us and keeps us going, as well as what frustrates us and causes us to anxiety. 

Note, when you begin looking for core values, there’s a difference between ASPIRATIONAL values and ACTUAL values. The same is true when you live the core values out...

  • Aspirational values are things we WANT to be part of our culture. We ASPIRE to them. 
  • Actual values are the things that already matter. They are what already gets done, how we ACTUALLY behave.

It’s OK to choose some aspirational values, by the way. But, they need to be values we’ll actually live and infuse throughout the organization— not just words we hang on a wall or place on a website. 

Systems and coaching are needed to hold ourselves and our organization accountable to maintaining the culture we’re seeking to live out!

This requires both courage to hold others accountable and coaching to keep us as the leader accountable.


Don't water them down with "permission to play" values.

By the way, leadership guru Patrick Lencioni mentions “permission to play” values and notes that many organizations automatically “play it safe” and divert down to these… 

What are some examples? 

  •  Integrity (or "honest")
  •  Humility 
  •  Kindness

It’s easy to fall into these traps, because they sound right.

He calls them “permission to play” values because they’re “givens.” Think about it…

If an employee is dishonest, you’re not going to allow them work for you, are you?

These “permission to play” values are requirements. And, whereas your core values should highlight what’s unique about you and your organization, these clearly don’t.


Back at it...

Hold yourself accountable to what you say you believe / value, especially if it's a culture you've designed.

Accountability is a common theme in healthy organizations. Even when it comes to core values. 

Our core values should be made visible. Again, we must— 

  •  Model them
  •  Keep getting clearer and clearer about them
  • Hold ourselves accountable to them 

We continue evaluating everything we do in the organization based on those values. Hire around them. Fire based on them. Make project-decisions because of them.

Don’t write something on paper and not produce and reproduce it…

… make certain you LIVE what you’ve said is important. 


Questions to get gut-honest about

Assess yourself...

  • What about the culture in your organization?
  • What’s healthy?
  • What’s less than healthy?
  • What parts of the culture have been determined by design?
  • By default?

Today, start building health into your culture.

Be clear. Be consistent. Be bold. Be courageous.

A little big of intentionality coupled with accountability go a long way. Culture is determined by the accumulation of all the behaviors in an organization. And, of course, behaviors define culture. So, let's decide what we want to do (intentionality) then hold ourselves to it (accountability).



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