Company Culture Is an Inside-Out Job: Why Your Culture’s Strength and Well-Being Start With You

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In my work in leadership and culture, I find people often think that culture is created “out there.” They view culture as something outside of themselves over which they have no control. For many, culture is something to be fixed, something that makes people quit or convinces them to stay, and even something that can be improved with foosball tables, free meals, and karaoke Tuesdays.

While these perks are lovely and can make a culture more pleasurable to be part of, two things must be noted here. First, an authentically healthy culture is not created through stuff or even through cultural initiatives. Rather, it is created through the intangibles, the soft stuff, like how people feel. Second, culture is not created “out there” by everyone else — it’s created “in here” within ourselves first. Creating culture is an inside-out job.

These concepts may already be familiar to you. Perhaps you know of organizations that have all the perks and even line their walls with their organizational values, but their cultures are not great; it doesn’t feel life-giving to be there. You may also know of organizations that have few perks and values that are not formally fleshed out, but it feels great to be there.

What’s the difference between these cultures? In my experience, it’s threefold:

  1. How each individual shows up: In a healthy culture, people own the culture and make it what they want it to be. They show up in a way that models the behaviors and ways of being that will create a strong culture.
  2. What people focus on: In a healthy culture, people focus on purpose; impact; and being in service of each other, the organization, and the work they’re doing.
  3. Frameworks, agreements, and structures: Structures are in place to support a healthy culture and to allow employees to do their best work together.

Everything on top of these three factors — perks, initiatives, beer pong nights — is gravy.

How to Create a Healthy Culture in Your Workplace

The first step in creating a healthy culture is to realize that you are the culture — you set the tone. How you walk into a room is the culture. The energy you bring to any conversation is the culture. The way you talk about culture is the culture. How you request or complain, show up present or brag busy, lead or abdicate, take ownership or blame — whatever you do and are is the culture.

Once we really understand that we create the culture in how we show up and in the intentions, energy, and presence we bring with ourselves, we can better influence the culture instead of falling victim to it. At the very least, we can take care of ourselves so we don’t get clobbered by toxicity if the culture is not great.

We can’t control what happens around us, what anyone else does, or whether people decide to be positively contagious or not, but we can control ourselves, the choices we make in how we show up, how we take care of ourselves in this scenario, and how we choose to be contagious for good or bad.

We can also support ourselves and our teams with agreements, structures, and frameworks that set us up for success in our work together. In my book, Contagious Culture: Show Up, Set the Tone, and Intentionally Create an Organization That Thrives, I share what I call the “Super Seven of Cultural Health.” I encourage any team looking to build a healthy culture to explore these factors together:

  1. Does our organization have shared values, a clear vision, and a meaningful sense of purpose? Are these things understood, life-giving, and inspiring to the people we work with?
  2. Do we all share the intention of contribution and service when working with each other? Do we prioritize contribution and service over looking good, getting it “right,” playing it safe, or getting ahead?
  3. Do we create an environment where it is safe to show up, speak the truth, and take risks with each other? You can’t have optimal collaboration, creativity, or realness without safety and truth. Of course, you are your best bet in bringing safety and truth to the environment. It starts with you! (Psst, these all do!)
  4. Do we come from a place of curiosity and vulnerability with each other? Can we hold space for curiosity and vulnerability, or do we shy away from it, make it wrong, or shut it down entirely? Genuine curiosity creates more safety, connection, and space for vulnerability. Vulnerability creates more space for connection, curiosity, and even more vulnerability. It’s a virtuous cycle.
  5. Do we practice accountability and ownership together? You have more space to focus on the right things — and less time for confusion and drama — when you own mistakes, share wins and outcomes, have clear accountability in roles, create collaborative agreements for how you’ll work together, and are accountable for what you each bring to the table.
  6. Is our organization clear on what “reciprocity” means, and do we practice it ourselves? Reciprocity is the art of giving and receiving. There is “personal reciprocity” — making sure I give to myself and take care of myself. There is “collaborative reciprocity” — being clear about what my team, family, friends, etc., can count on me for and what I can count on from them. Finally, there is “organizational reciprocity” — what I contribute to the organization and what the organization gives me in return.
  7. Does the way we measure and reward in our organization help us cultivate the culture we want to have? Do we have conscious measurements and rewards to reinforce the right kind of growth and behaviors and to demonstrate that we value honoring people? For example, do our current evaluation and measurement systems create collaboration or competition? Do they foster risk-taking and truth-telling, or do they make people careful in covering their own backs and withholding information from their peers so they can be seen as more valuable or mistake-free?

Any of these seven factors can change your culture game. Of course, each and every one of them starts with you. Which of these feel the most useful to you right now? Go there.

Anese Cavanaugh is the creator of the IEP Method (Intentional Energetic Presence), an advisor and thinking partner to leaders and organizations around the world, and author of Contagious Culture: Show Up, Set the Tone, and Intentionally Create an Organization That Thrives. Her next book, Contagious You: Unlock Your Incredible Power to Influence, Lead, and Create the Impact You Want , arrives in November 2019.

By Anese Cavanaugh