How to Encode a Common Language into Your Culture

encoding a common language
Lyn Turknett, Co-founder and Co-chair, TLG

The “common language” of a culture, in my experience, usually revolves around values and principles that are foundational and that are understood across cultures and generations. The values are often core to the business. For example, “high reliability” organizations, ones that deal in life and death (think healthcare, aviation, mining), often have safety as a core value.

Even more interestingly, core values like safety, which are important to both company success (accidents are expensive) and employee well-being, can help build both “habits of excellence” (see the story of Alcoa and CEO Paul O’Neill in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” – one of the best books I’ve ever read), strong loyalty, and resolve in employees. There’s a good summary of the story in a Forbes article published a few years ago.

One quote from that article has an insight that I think is particularly important – “When employees believe their employer is aiming to keep them safe, it unleashes the kind of reciprocity that affects more than just the accident rate.” I think that leads us to an important insight into cultures that work. When the principles resonate broadly across various levels of the organization, country cultures, multiple age groups, and across differing religions – they are more likely to be embraced. I am partial, of course, but one of the reasons I think our Leadership Character Model works as bridging cultural language is that the concepts, Integrity, Respect, and Responsibility, are broadly embraced and understood. And employees find those concepts, when living in the culture, important to their well-being.


Encoding a Common Language into the Culture

That brings me, though, to something that I think is even more important than a common language, and that is what makes the common language live in everyday behavior. While many companies have stated values, or stated cultural principles, what makes those go from a framed document on a wall to lived everyday experience? How do those principles impact everyday behavior? How is the culture “encoded”? That is a huge question, but here are a few things I have seen work:

  • If you are producing a new or revised set of values or cultural principles for a team, department, or organization, do not simply let the leaders create the values. Leaders can create a draft, but getting feedback more broadly makes them more likely to stick.
  • No matter where the principles come from, it is critical that they be “embedded and encoded” in day-to-day behavior. Discussion (and continued discussion) of what that means for every role is important and becomes a way of encoding the culture.
  • Set meeting norms that reflect the culture. These can be set and agreed to by each team. Reminders at the beginning of meetings and measurement at the end is a great mechanism for cultural encoding and team accountability.
  • Hold leaders accountable. Role models are essential, and the most significant role models are senior leaders. If they do not live out the desired culture, the battle is lost before it is begun.
  • Culture champions at all parts of the organization are important, especially when there is “field-headquarters” tension. These champions are usually good role models of the culture who are influencers, and they can be a part of a group that organizes culture strengthening activities.

Culture Done Right

Here are two of my favorite examples of “culture done right”:

  • Novelis, under newly named CEO Steve Fisher, felt that they needed a cultural reset. Fisher had heard on a listening tour that the company had gotten away from their roots and had become too bureaucratic and top-down. They created cultural principles aligned with strategy – for example, full accountability for everyone – see a problem, fix the problem – without blame. Leaders were held accountable for changes in their own behavior, for example, listening to the front line.
  • YKK embarked on a process, led by then America’s CEO Alex Gregory, of highlighting and strengthening their culture. They began with a focus on purpose as defined by their Japanese founder and created twenty fundamental behaviors that drove purpose. They focused on one a week throughout the organization and then rotated.Culture champions at all parts of the organization are important, especially when there is “field-headquarters” tension. These champions are typically good role models of the culture who are influencers, and they can be a part of a group that organizes culture strengthening activities.


How Individuals Can Contribute to the Culture

So, what can a person do individually to contribute to a healthy organizational culture? Although we are looking at this from an organizational perspective, there are things a person can do individually as well to contribute to a healthy culture.

  • Assume positive intent. We all tend to look for negative motivations in others, but when we do it ruins our individual happiness, and the collective tendency can ruin the culture in any human group. Indra Nooyi was a proponent, but it is important not just for CEOs but for every single one of us.
  • Remember that you always have more power than you think you have. Leadership is a choice, not a position. People who have the character for leadership are people who, with honesty and respect for others, simply step up to the plate and choose to lead when they see a need. We saw a fabulous example at a small South Georgia grocery store over twenty years ago. The store was part of a large grocery chain, and in this company every assistant manager must do a project. In this store the assistant manager decided to initiate a customer service project. Only two weeks after the project began, he was promoted out of the store. An employee working on the project – we will call her Mary – although she was not a manager and it was not her job, decided that the program was too good for the employees and too good for the store to let it drop. She convinced the store manager to let her continue it. The store began getting rave customer reviews. Teenage clerks, who were involved in trying to figure out how to improve service, began coming in on Saturdays to back up when someone was sick. The store increased dramatically in sales and customer service evaluations. The store manager, whose leadership style also gradually changed, said that letting Mary continue the project was the best decision he ever made.