Culture is the toughest thing to change. It is entwined deeply in the roots of all organizations. Culture affects every aspect of your organization’s functioning—from individual employee engagement to teamwork to program management to overall results.

As leaders, we get so caught up in meetings, daily operations, and short-term firefighting it’s easy to forget that all these actions are connected to our organization’s culture.

In his article Closing the Massive Gaps between Culture Awareness, Education, and Action, Tim Kuppler notes that most organizations fail to connect culture and strategy. He says most strategies are predetermined by culture in ways leaders don’t recognize. Excellent strategies can be torpedoed by culture, yet leaders usually don’t realize it, and may instead blame others, or circumstances.

So how do we ensure our workplace culture supports our organization’s success? In the TEDx presentation Creating Organizational Cultures Based on Values and Performance, Ann Rhoades, a leading expert on building values-based organizations, identifies what high-performing, values-based organizations do very well:

  • Define their values precisely, including behaviours
  • Maintain continuous improvement discipline
  • Understand that their people are their brand
  • Maintain strong models of accountability and rewards

Observe what tops her list—defining values and their associated behaviours. From this wellspring emanates your organization’s culture.

Leaders → drive values → drive behaviours → drive culture → drive performance

As an example, Rhoades shares a story from Southwest Airlines. A man books a last-minute, urgent trip to visit his dying grandson. He arrives at the gate just as the plane is about to depart. The flight attendant reaches for her phone. Given that he’s sure he’s missed the flight he assumes she’s making arrangements for another flight, and that he has lost the chance to see his grandson one last time. But instead, within a few minutes, the plane’s captain arrives from down the jetway to personally escort him on to the plane.

Southwest’s values were so well defined and so well embedded in its culture that its employees instinctively knew how to behave in this situation.

According to Dr. Bill Howatt, Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, culture begins with senior leadership who, with their people, define parameters with respect to vision and values. He says culture shapes the story for how people are expected to behave within a workplace. This impacts their workplace experience.

His advice on actions that leadership can take to shape culture:

  • Define the ideal state: What kind of culture do the senior leaders and work force want, and how will this benefit employees, management, and customers?
  • Regularly and objectively measure the culture: This does not need to be an ordeal. There are different tactics (for example, surveys that measure culture perceptions, employee stress levels) that can analyze the consequences on health, engagement, and productivity.
  • Culture shaping: The data unpacks the culture story. To have an impact, senior leaders need to mandate culture shaping as a core objective and put this measure on a corporate scorecard.

The influence of workplace culture on your organization’s success is undeniable, and leaders play a crucial role in defining, shaping, and maintaining it. To paraphrase Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos—

If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.