3 Things Real Leaders Do to Shape Company Culture

by Derek Irvine

Image of businessman adding color to black and white worldRecognize This! – Effective cultures are proactively created by recognizing and reinforcing desired behaviors in every employee, every day.

Among my list of favorite authors, thinkers and change agents is Steve Kerr. His book Reward Systems: Does Yours Measure Up? is one I often recommend for its common sense approach to recognition and reward. As the former Chief Learning Officer and head of leadership development for both GE and Goldman Sachs, Steve Kerr is also well known for his seminal article “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Expecting B.”

He’s continued to educate along that theme, using the recent quality and safety challenges at GM as an example. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Steve concludes with asking why it is so out-of-the-norm and courageous to behave in ways that demonstrate the behaviors the company has said it desires (namely: product quality, safety, transparency and integrity).

I encourage you to read the full HBR article for Steve’s three-step process for how to align your recognition practices with your mission and objectives. I particularly want to call your attention to this recommendation:

“Make a list of the behaviors you are currently measuring… Then compare each of the behaviors on your [list behaviors that you want to see “more of” and “less of”] to the list of behaviors you’re currently measuring. Put a circle around the behaviors you are not now measuring. This is your danger list! If a behavior you care about is not being measured:

  • Your employees are likely to conclude that it isn’t very important, and will act accordingly.
  • You aren’t able to provide skills training (in cases where the problem results from poor skills rather than low motivation).
  • You aren’t able to provide feedback about the behavior, either informally or in performance reviews, so how can people improve their performance even if they want to?
  • You aren’t able to reward the people who are doing what you want. Nor can you penalize people who are not doing what you want.

“Some people will do what you want anyway, for personal reasons, but effective leaders create cultures that inspire and motivate people to do the right things. Effective leaders don’t sit idly by while hoping their people will behave ethically and perform competently. And they most certainly do not create or permit the existence of cultures that encourage and reward bad behavior.”

Emphasis above is mine. “Effective leaders don’t sit idly by.” I would argue you can’t call yourself a leader at all if you choose to “let culture happen” rather than proactively stepping up to shape it to what you know is needed for organization success. As Steve so eloquently points out, real leaders:

  1. Define desired behaviors that support an effective culture
  2. Consistently, frequently and in a timely way recognize and reward employees who demonstrate those desired behaviors
  3. Use the data collected around behaviors recognized (and not recognized) to intervene and reinforce further or retrain where necessary

Culture creation can be a passive event. Successful companies, however, create the culture they want through the daily behaviors, actions and results of every employee.

How would you define your culture? What behaviors are recognized? Rewarded? Ignored? Are your leaders effective at creating a desirable culture?

Derek Irvine

About Derek Irvine

The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and "Winning with a Culture of Recognition," he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.

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