Culture: It starts at the top

by | Aug 15, 2023

Darcy Luoma is one of America’s most highly credentialed coaches. She’s worked in 48 industries, with more than 500 organizations, and has impacted tens of thousands of leaders and employees.


I can clearly remember the first time I witnessed first-hand the impact culture can have on employees.

Thirty-something odd years ago, I was a fresh-faced consultant at a leadership firm. I’d chosen to work there because the boss had a great reputation, and I loved the mission. He was well-known locally as an excellent presenter and trainer, as well as for having tons of positive energy (something I value highly).

Unfortunately, I came to find out that his public persona and his personality behind the scenes were two very different things. As a matter of fact, the culture he set with the internal team was awful. For example:

  • He demanded unrealistic deadlines, but then didn’t follow through on important projects
  • He didn’t have integrity, and his ethics were questionable
  • He delegated in a vague, unclear way, only to get mad when work wasn’t done correctly

I loved my work there, and I gladly would’ve stayed for a decade or more if the culture had been better. But I ended up quitting because there was such a lack of alignment – to the point that it became draining to even go to the office every day. 

I know I wasn’t the only employee who felt that way. My boss’ behavior negatively impacted the rest of the team, and the overall morale suffered.


Leaders set the culture for their employees

As a leader, your behavior sets the tone for the culture of your organization, regardless of whether that tone is positive, negative or (more likely) something in-between. In other words, culture starts at the top.

And if there’s a discrepancy between the healthy culture you want and your actions as a leader, your employees will emulate your actions – not your words! Even with the best of intentions, those two things don’t always align. Gallup has found that fewer than half of employees think their leaders are aligned with their own expectations for their organizational culture. 


Actions speak louder than words

I’m reminded of a manager we coached who was annoyed with the back-chatting, gossip and indirect feedback on her team. She wanted her employees to stop – yet she engaged in the same behaviors herself!

Here are some other common examples of conflict between a leader’s desired culture and their own actions:

  • A boss who wants his team to ta​​ke more time off, but works on the few vacation days he takes.
  • A COO who asks her employees to confide in her about what they’re struggling with, only to tell them why they shouldn’t worry about that.
  • A new leader who feels like he always has to have all the answers – meaning his direct reports feel the same pressure!

Every day you have a choice on how you show up and what culture you set in your organization. In the Thoughtfully Fit model, we call this practice Strength. When you practice Strength, you consciously choose the tone you want to set with your team. Admittedly, somedays, it can be a heavy lift.


Core workout

If you’d like to bring this type of Strength to your own team, give the following core workout a try!

  • Pause: The next time you observe something in your organizational culture that’s not to your liking, take a moment.
  • Think: What tone would you like to set for your employees? What tone are you currently setting? What’s one thing you can do to close the gap?
  • Act: Demonstrate the behavior that matches the thoughtful culture you want to create.

And take it from twenty-something Darcy: if you manage the way you want to be managed, your employees might stay for another decade!

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