Culture Creep: The Impact on Business Results

shadow of leader

Research shows that organizations with high performance over a sustained period of time achieve their success because their people are coming to work each day to do more than punch the clock. Organizations are great not just because a leader is doing something great, organizations are great because lots of people are going above and beyond their job description and making a difference every day.

How do you get an organization full of these people? The role of leadership is to intentionally build a sustainable, constructive organizational culture. A constructive culture is one that encourages people to set challenging but realistic goals, develop themselves, be supportive of people and treat people as members of the team. Ultimately, a constructive organizational culture delivers greater results and adapts to the world around it with greater levels of innovation.

Building a high-performing, constructive culture is not easy work but it is possible. Over my two decades of professional practice I have seen many organizations improve bottom line results by purposefully building constructive culture. I have also seen business results erode when the leader of the organization moves on or when the leader takes his or her focus off of cultivating a culture that achieves results. We call this erosion “Culture Creep.”

Culture Creep occurs when the necessary underpinnings of a strong, sustainable culture are missing or leadership behavior changes. To prevent Culture Creep, consider taking these three actions.

Every leader casts a shadow across their organization that impacts its culture.

~Larry Senn

1. Create and sustain urgency for the vision
A foundational part of a performance culture development is to craft a vision that captures the energy of the people hired to deliver that vision. Once that vision is established and understood throughout the organization, focus must be maintained to ensure the vision statement does not become just words on posters in the company lobby. Daily work can become mundane and everyday frustrations can become demotivating to people who are not connected to the value of their work. Those who see the urgency of achieving the vision will apply their creativity, collaborate to overcome problems, and radically ratchet up their productivity.

To maintain focus on vision, use performance goals and milestones to track progress made in relation to the vision. Help employees find a personal and emotional reason to care by using stories about how the organization is making a difference in the world. Leaders should draw a direct connection between the work employees do each day and the vision of the organization. Help employees understand the impact they are having on customers and, when possible, create a direct connection to the customer. A sense of urgency and purpose is strengthened when employees connect with people and their stories.

The more employees are able to connect with and personally track progress towards the vision, the better connection they have on the ultimate purpose and value being delivered to the customers. This connection will capture the energy and creativity of the organization and improve business results.

2. Live the values
A “principle-centered” organization creates a firm foundation. Values are an expression of an organization’s principles. When values are well defined and operationalized, employees experience a clear set of boundaries that guide their decisions and actions.

Shared values within an organization give space for trust to grow. Trust inspires employees to work together to achieve the vision. Further, as Stephen M.R. Covey writes in his book “Speed of Trust,” when the level of trust in an organization goes up the speed of change goes up with it and the costs of getting things done goes down.

Operationalizing values means that everyone from leadership to front line employees know and live out the values. This includes the planning, organization, decision making, supervision, hiring, firing, employee evaluation, and rewards. One of the most significant ways to make values operational is to hire people who already hold the organizations values in high regard. After we hire, manage to the values.

People and organizations are judged based on their behavior, not their words. Trust is established and sustained based upon actions not promises. Therefore, making sure that values matter begins with the action of the leader. Leaders must walk the talk and become a model of how the values are executed.

3. Focus on leadership behaviors
Leaders have a direct impact on the behaviors of others in the organization. It is that simple. It really does start at the top where a leader exhibits behaviors that impact how employees will approach things such as goal setting and efforts to reach those goals, or understanding and solving customer problems, or how they interact on teams.

An unintentional culture will take shape when a leader’s behavior is not aligned with values and the culture they want to shape. Many approaches are available to understand leadership behaviors such as 360 feedback survey and 1:1 discussion.  Whatever tool is used, the critical outcome is to link leadership behavior with the culture being created. As Larry Senn has said, every leader casts a shadow across their organization that impacts its culture.

Whether you have successfully shifted culture, are in the middle of culture change, or are just humming along at high rates of performance, the actions described above can be applied. Organizational culture is not static and requires continual effort and attention.

Maintain the benefits of building a high performing culture by focusing on vision, values and leadership behaviors. These three important actions will help you avoid the erosion of your culture before it creeps, seeps and leaks away.

What can you add to the conversation? I invite your thoughts and comments below. 

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Vice President, Brighton Leadership Group

Scott Beilke is Vice President at Brighton Leadership Group, a consultancy that helps leaders create flourishing workplaces by developing constructive cultures of speed and agility, creating healthy environments that attract and retain top talent and growing authentic leaders whose people power extraordinary performance. He is a strategic advisor to executive teams and boards of large, mid-market and emerging organizations throughout the world. He is a contributing author to the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, and a founding faculty member of

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