From the Battlefield to the Boardroom: 5 Universal Ways to Shape Organizational Culture


By JD Dolan & Patrick O’Connor

Organizational culture – the behavior, values and practices within an organization or team – is a driver and not a byproduct, of success. When constructed appropriately, a tuned ecosystem drives business performance and employee satisfaction in a mutually reinforcing, feedback loop. However, culture is not solely the responsibility of leadership or management, but rather, it evolves from the behavior of every member of the organization- who each share responsibility for the environment within which they operate.

Recent thought on corporate culture promotes the notion that culture is systematically established and can be designed and constructed based on cultural blueprints from other successful companies. This could not be further from the truth. As General Stan McChrystal points out in a recent article, ( “Culture is much more than an open floor plan, a game room, or a dress code”. An organization’s culture must be unique and built in response to the needs, goals, and long-term strategy of the business, which practically, reflects the needs and goals of the individuals who lead and operate the business. A company’s culture is its unique marker within the mind of its employees, clients and business partners; and creating it takes time and effort. Below are five actionable steps, three for executives or other senior leaders and two for employees, and each step can be implemented today to improve your organization’s culture.

CEOs and Other Leadership


1. Take Responsibility and Give Credit

It is often the case that leaders are the most visible members of an organization, and therefore assume the responsibility for a given action or result.  This is one of the greatest opportunities for a senior leader. Unfortunately, too often this tool is grossly mishandled and rarely utilized for the benefit of positive culture building.  As is often quoted during a military promotion promotion ceremony, a leader is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their respective “command” (organization), and should be the first to take responsibility for a failure and the last to take credit for an achievement!

There is no faster way to build a mutually supportive culture than for a leader to take responsibility for significant organizational failures while concurrently acknowledging and crediting team members for organizational achievement and success.  This exercise necessitates a daily habit of intentionality and careful practice.  Taking responsibility for failure establishes trust, and promotes feelings of empowerment and of mutual support where subordinate team members are encouraged to make decisions and execute, despite the risk of failure. Similarly challenging, particularly when successes are rare, or a given leadership position requires the achievement of certain metrics, giving and sharing the credit establishes an ethos of selfless “team achievement” whereby the members of an organization work together towards the greater good. Group success and personal success are not mutually exclusive. As a leader, if there is only one change you incorporate, it should be to develop a reflex for taking responsibility for the team’s failures and deliberately giving credit for other’s success!

2. Teach the “why”, not the “what”

At some point in our careers we have all been told what to do. Whether it’s completing a task, creating a deliverable, developing a strategy or writing a report, there is always more work to be done. Management teams are constantly dictating work, but often fail to communicate why the work needs to be done in the first place. Every person wants to feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves. Expressing why something needs to be completed is a great opportunity for leaders and managers to satisfy an employee’s desire to be a part of something greater than oneself- and to make an purposeful impact. “Please complete this task” is much less satisfying than “please complete this task because the information gleaned from its completion will both inform and guide our operational goals for the upcoming management meeting.” While this is a simple change to implement, its relative impact is quite extensive, for now the employee has a sense of responsibility to the greater team and can begin to envision the “big picture”. This greater sense of team creates a shared understanding and a common purpose, two of the foundational principles of team building and organizational growth, ensuring that all team members are “rowing”, and understand why they are “rowing”, in the same direction.

3. Invest in team dynamics outside of work!

A sense of community is vital to establishing trust and building high performing teams. The challenge is authenticity. There is a distinct difference between professional motivation – creating value in support of a co-worker whom you know only through interactions at work; and personal motivation – creating value in support of a co-worker whose husband and 7-month old son you met at the recent family day. This is certainly not to suggest that professional motivation is insufficient, quite to the contrary, or to trivialize a personal relationship; but rather to suggest that forming a community allows a division to become a team. A team that is willing to sacrifice long days and nights for the betterment of the people with whom they work. The question remains, with only 40 hours a week, how do you create these types of meaningful relationships, throughout the office, without taking time away from work itself? Invest in team dynamics outside of work! Organize employee driven events that do not cost them money and provides an opportunity for team members to interact with one another around a non-work theme. One example is a company-wide service event.  A service event might involve an organizational philanthropy day where coworkers (and/or families) can work together in support of a non-work related higher purpose. The opportunities are endless, but it is worth noting that the value created, both tangible and intangible, from the shared-service/experience events: philanthropy, hiking, climbing, sailing, etc. far exceed any other event and often dramatically accelerate team dynamics through relationship building.



4. Daily Mindset – Lead by Example

Genuine relationships drive company culture. Such relationships are not built on their own: they take time and concerted effort to grow. To help foster these relationships, make yourself available to others around the office and be proactive about engaging with co-workers, regardless of position or title. The opportunity to elevate the office from a place of work to a place of purpose is immeasurable. Your mindset, upon entering the office, greatly impacts both your own performance and the performance of those around you. When you see a co-worker in the hallway, take the initiative to be genuine in the way in which you engage them. Ask them about something that matters to them as a person, not just a co-worker; and then listen! Relationships will be what change “coffee break talk” into meaningful, empathetic discussions about things that matter.  When conversations extend to topics of substance, a shared understanding is born and it is this shared understanding that supports community in the workplace.

5. Your Leader’s Point of View

Work related pressures are around us every day. As one becomes a leader, with increasing responsibility, the forces of pressure compound. Empathize UP the organizational leadership chart. The expression, “walk a mile in their shoes” comes to mind suggesting that there is value to inquiring (internally) about the “why”, instead of reacting to and internalizing the “what”. “Get this done now!” does not need to result in you becoming temporarily or permanently disgruntled; but rather, it provides you with an opportunity to try and better understand your boss, namely the environment and conditions in which she operates. Begin with empathy- a powerful tool that can serve to disarm or mitigate feelings of anger or resentment, while fostering feelings of mutual respect or even admiration among a team and across an enterprise.

Start organizational improvement with these five steps. If you are a leader:

  • Take responsibility for the next organizational failure;
  • Publicly credit a more junior employee for a recent success;
  • Provide the why instead of simply the what; and
  • Initiate a shared service day for this quarter!

As a member of a team:

  • Set the standard by genuinely engaging with those around you; and
  • Commit to considering your Boss’s perspective and the pressure that they may be experiencing, the next time you are frustrated by an action or engagement.

Building a dynamic organizational culture and a high performing team is not easy- but it is worth it! Great culture attracts great employees, increases retention, improves performance and ultimately transforms a workplace into a community- capable of creating long-term value and enduring the test of time.

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