How Leaders Shape Culture

shaping culture

As a supervisor or mid-level manager in a global company, you may not have the power to shape the entire culture, but you do have the power to shape culture in your department, local office, or workplace. It is not a question of whether or not you shape culture, but whether you shape culture consciously or unconsciously. The way you speak, the language you use, and the behaviors you exhibit influence the culture whether you are aware of it or not. When obvious signs emerge that indicate workplace drama, such as absenteeism, turnover, negativity or low morale, the leader can start to shift culture by changing language and behaviors. Here are some snapshots along with the behavior and a communication example to help you shape culture and improve business results.

Build Trust
You can’t build a culture of trust without telling the truth. Leaders often avoid truth-telling because of the false belief that kindness and truth-telling cannot coexist. That belief contributes to the behavior of people-pleasing. For example, a leader may say, “That’s a great idea, I’ll get back to you,” when they don’t think the idea is good, or they have no real interest in following though. People-pleasing eventually backfires. Instead of employees respecting “kindness,” they judge your lack of integrity. As a leader you have to stop being afraid of the truth, and instead learn how to speak truth kindly.

Behavior: Practice truth telling.

Communication example: “Kim, I love your initiative. The idea needs more thought. Can you come back to me with some research about…?” Now Kim knows you appreciate the initiative, but not necessarily the idea, and you have been specific about what Kim needs to do to be successful.

Result: Increased trust and leadership respect.

Promote Character
If you want to promote a culture where qualities such as honesty, initiative, and trust are valued and displayed, use character-based words such as trust, dependability, and integrity in your language. Make a list of qualities you want to see in your employees, and get clear on how you will know the characteristics and qualities when you see them. For example if you want to see more trustworthiness, define what trustworthiness means to you. When you give employee feedback, make sure to notice and comment on the character traits you appreciate in them.

Behavior: Reward employees based on character qualities.

Communication example: “Chris, I can always rely on you. It’s great to have an employee I can trust to meet deadlines and keep me updated.” Getting familiar with character-based words also helps you as a leader to model these characteristics and infiltrate them into your own life and leadership.

Result: A values-driven culture based on character qualities.

Invite Engagement: Achieving employee engagement does not have to be so difficult. The problem lies in the way we define engagement, and our beliefs about employees. Too often engagement is defined as participating on a committee or volunteering for a project. In No-Drama Leadership engagement is defined as a symbiotic value for value between employee and employer. When employees are not using their unique gifts, not experiencing joy, or are not growing, they complain. Leaders view the complaining as lack of engagement, rather than seeing that complaining is an opportunity to invite engagement. The key is turning negative engagement to positive engagement, from the understanding that people complain when they care about something but don’t know how to fix the problem.

Enlightened leaders invite engagement by shifting complaining to idea-sharing. As a leader, you have to become comfortable with someone else’s discomfort. Only then can you invite positive engagement by inviting dialogue.

Behavior: Listen without being defensive, and ask for ideas.

Communication example: “It sounds like you are unhappy about the rotation on third shift. Do you have any ideas of how we could make the rotation more effective and fair to all?”

Result: Interest, initiative and involvement versus complaining and complacency.

Create an Accountability Culture
No one likes to admit their mistakes, and leaders are no exception; however, if you want to build a culture of accountability you must model course-correction. The ability to quickly admit mistakes and course-correct is the foundation of creating a learning environment where accountability is sought after instead of feared. The less comfortable a leader is in dealing with his or her fears, the more likely they are to avoid accountability and course-correction. My suggestion is to admit your mistakes and make amends. Here’s why: Your employees will see that you are human, but strong enough to admit a mistake and learn from the mistake. This creates a learning environment where people seek accountability rather than fear it.

Behavior: Model course-correction in the workplace.

Communication example: “Last month I promised to get back to the team about the status of the new organizational structure. It totally slipped my mind and I want to apologize, and course-correct that today. I’m inviting you to remind me if it seems that I’ve dropped the ball.”

Result: A culture of accountability where people take responsibility for accurate results.

Conclusion: Even with all the constraints you may have if you are a front line manager, or if you work within a large corporate system, you can still shape the culture of your department, franchise, or office so that the values you want to see expressed are evident in the working relationships. The one with clarity and vision leads the way and when others are inspired they follow.

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Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker, and the author of No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015) and Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011). Marlene’s passion is developing wise leaders and helping people discover, develop, and deliver their gifts to the world. Visit her at and; and connect via Linked In, Facebook, and twitter.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    I loved your simple (= profound) and practical tips Marlene