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How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Culture

How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Culture

by | Apr 1, 2019 | By David Dye, Communication, Courageous Cultures, Winning Well |

Does the Power of Culture Propel or Punish Your Team?

I fell backward off the side of a boat and descended into the Pacific Ocean where I was about to get an incredible (and frightening) experience about the power of culture.

I’m a relatively new scuba diver and was diving with my family in the Galapagos islands. This would be our first current-dive, where you drop into the ocean and swim with the current. The boat picks you up at the end of the dive.

The dive master reviewed the plan, we put on our wetsuits and gear, then rolled off the boat into the ocean. We grouped up twenty feet below the surface at a rocky ledge, then the dive master led us around the ledge and into the current.

It was at this point I realized how poorly I had misunderstood the word “current.” I was thinking of a Lazy River ride where you float along on an inflated tube, enjoying the scenery. This was something else entirely – like a dam had burst and swept up everything in its path.

Invisible. Irresistible.

I could swim to the left, I could swim to the right. I could swim up or down. What I could not do was turn around or go back. Even giving it my full physical effort, if I tried to swim against the current, I couldn’t even stay in place and would exhaust my air in minutes.

The Power of Culture

In your organization, culture has the same effect as that ocean current. Like the current, culture is invisible and powerful.

Our favorite definition of culture is from Seth Godin. He defines culture as “People like us do things like this.” Culture is that invisible force of mutual understanding and awareness that drives human behavior.

If you want to know what one human being is likely to do, look at what the people around them do. If you want to change what one person does, change what the people around them do.

That’s the power of culture.

Maxine was a CEO who often was frustrated that people in her organization didn’t take more initiative and creatively solve problems. When you examined the culture, however, “people like us don’t take initiative and solve problems.”

Maxine and her leadership team had spent the last two years emphasizing the need to follow procedure. They replaced respected leaders who raised objections or looked for better ways. The result was an organization of people who did what they were told.

It was unreasonable to expect an individual employee to fight the culture they had created.

If your employees would have to take heroic action to do what’s best for your customers and your business, you have a culture problem. [Tweet This]

Devon is Vice President of a major healthcare provider. He and his leadership team prize their employees’ ideas and micro-innovations. “They’re the ones closest to the patients and every day they see firsthand what’s working and what’s not. We’d be foolish not to listen.”

Working with his management team, Devon created a “find a way to try it” mentality for new ideas. When an employee suggests a process improvement, their manager actively looks for ways that the employee can implement a small-scale experiment.

“The employee knows they were heard. They’re more engaged and have ownership of the idea because they’re involved in implementing it. You do this once or twice and then you’ve got a stack of good ideas.”

That’s the power of culture. Devon’s team doesn’t have to be heroic and swim upstream because “people like us” look at how we can make things better for our patients – and then do.

When Your Culture Doesn’t Work

You have a culture. It may sweep your team along toward breakthrough results or it could sweep them toward frustration and burnout.

The good news is that as a leader, unlike an ocean current, you can change your culture. It’s not easy, it takes time and commitment, but you can do it.

  1. Start with you. If you don’t have the culture you want, take time to write down what success would look like. What values do you hope to see in action? What would people like us be doing? Get specific – how would everyone act in different situations? What would they say?
  1. Look at your strategy and processes. Have you unintentionally been reinforcing a culture you don’t want? Who are you hiring? How are you training, compensating, and rewarding? Who do you hold accountable? Who do you not?
  1. Enlist your most engaged team members. Discuss what success would look like. Choose some key behaviors related to the most visible differences from the culture you want. Together, get very clear about these behaviors.
  1. Model the culture you want. With your engaged team members, set the example. Start talking about what success looks like going forward. Have conversations about “what it means to be a part of this team.” Make sure that the words match what people see from leaders. Use a consistent communication plan to ensure everyone hears and understands what it means for them.
  1. Practice accountability. When you, the team, or an individual don’t live out the culture, talk about it. At first, these are low level conversations that reinforce your commitment. Some of them may escalate into honest conversations where a team member is not a good fit. They just don’t want to be a part of the new culture. It’s okay. Wish them well and release them to a better fit.
  1. Celebrate. Relentlessly encourage success. Tell the stories. You get more of what you encourage and celebrate. Have fun as you reinforce the power of culture. For example, if you’re focused on working together and breaking down silos, you might get a small hammer, spray paint it gold, and hand out a quarterly “Golden Silo Smasher” award to the person or team who demonstrated excellent collaboration.
  1. Do it again. And again. Intentional culture requires consistent modeling, accountability and encouragement. You never outgrow the need for these behaviors at every level of leadership.

 Your Turn

The power of culture is stronger than individual effort. Put great people in a poor culture and their lackluster achievement will frustrate you. Build the culture you want and give people the environment that propels them to greatness.

Leave us a comment and share your best practice to build a healthy culture.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!


  1. Jamie Marsden

    Brilliant article David, love it – so much good advice! 😊

    • David Dye

      Thanks Jamie – glad to hear it was helpful!


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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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7 Practical Ways to be a Bit More Daring

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