How Managers Can Create a Strong Work Culture – with S. Chris Edmonds

I recently spoke to S. Chris Edmonds, who is the founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group. After a 15-year career leading and managing successful business teams, Chris began his consulting company in 1990. Since 1995, he has also served as a senior consultant with The Ken Blanchard Companies. Chris is the author or co-author of six books, including Ken Blanchard’s best selling revised and enhanced edition of Leading at a Higher Level. Here is a brief interview where Edmonds talks about creating the right work environment, the elements of corporate culture and more.

Dan Schawbel: How do you create the right work environment as a manager?

Chris Edmonds: Most managers invest far greater time and energy on their team or company’s products and services than they do in their work culture – yet culture drives everything that happens in their organization, good or bad.

To create a safe, inspiring work environment, managers must make values as important as results. Managers do so by making values’ expectations as specific as performance expectations, and holding people accountable for both.

Once managers craft these expectations, they must publicize them, model the valued behaviors consistently, and hold everyone in their organization accountable for consistently demonstrating the valued behaviors as well as delivering promised performance.

Alignment to your defined valued behaviors and performance expectations creates workplace inspiration. Alignment ensures trust, dignity, and respect of every player in every interaction. When employees experience consistent trust and inspiration, they are more engaged, treat customers better, and deliver higher profits.

Schawbel: What are the elements of a strong corporate culture and what are the steps to start building one?

Edmonds: A “strong” corporate culture is one that reinforces itself; it aligns plans, decisions, and action to itself. However, a “strong” culture isn’t necessarily a “good” or “effective” culture! A strong culture might reinforce undesirable behaviors, like rude or aggressive treatment, cut-throat “I win, you lose” actions, etc.

What leaders must cultivate is a strong and inspiring culture that describes and reinforces desired behaviors.

High performing, values-aligned organizations are very intentional about two things: defining their present day purpose, values and behaviors, strategies, and goals, and aligning all players, plans, decisions, and actions to those expectations.

Most teams and companies have some form of purpose, strategies, and goals defined – and, in most organizations, performance accountability is inconsistent. Very few companies have values defined in behavioral terms, which makes values accountability difficult to accomplish.

In organizations where values are formalized, they are typically not actionable. Values are usually stated in lofty, vague terms.

To make values as relevant and as important as results, managers must define “how we do things around here.” Values must be behaviorally defined in observable, measurable terms. Let’s pretend your company has a value titled “integrity.” You define integrity as “doing what you say you will do.” Nice start, but the definition alone doesn’t make “integrity” actionable.

To make an integrity value actionable, add observable, measurable behaviors. A behavior for integrity might be “I keep all of my promises to colleagues and customers.” That behavior is observable and can be measured in an annual values survey.

Aligning practices and behaviors – ensuring performance and values expectations are met – is an ongoing process.

Schawbel: Who are some companies that have successfully built a good corporate culture and some that need work?

Edmonds: High performing, values aligned companies I monitor include WD-40  Southwest Airlines, Zappos, W.L. Gore, and Starbucks. The leaders of these companies are very intentional about performance and values expectations – and about aligning daily practices to those sets of expectations.

Glassdoor helps me gauge employee perceptions of their companies and company leadership. Glassdoor’s 2014 “best companies to work for” list shares companies that treat employees respectfully, pay them fairly, offer fair benefits, and provide avenues for employee growth and contribution.

Most company cultures need work. 24/7 Wall Street presents 2014 “the worst companies to work for” list, based on Glassdoor employee responses. The eleven companies listed are known for poor employee treatment, low pay, long hours, low or no benefits, and cut-throat practices that erode consistent performance.

Schawbel: What are some bad leadership habits and how do you break them?

Edmonds: Here are three lousy leader habits that I coach executives on quite regularly.

Tolerations - Leaders tolerate lousy behavior far too often, by themselves, by other leaders, and by employees. Even if their team or company has not defined valued behaviors, rude behavior must never be tolerated. Workplace civility only happens by intention. Responsibility for civility falls on the leader’s shoulders to set appropriate boundaries.

Listening - Leaders don’t listen well. When leaders don’t listen well, they’ll make lousy plans, decisions, and actions – because they’re not working from a picture of reality. When they listen at all, they often depend upon colleagues that tell the leader what the leader wants to hear – not the reality. Leaders rarely create easy ways to listen to those closest to the work and to the customer – their employees.

Context - Leaders typically assume that “everyone knows where we’re going and why.” The reality is that most frontline team leads and employees don’t understand the company’s strategies and decisions. If you’d like team members to make better decisions in the moment, communicate your company strategy clearly and frequently.

Schawbel: A lot of workers complain about corporate politics. Why do politics exist and how do you get around them to accomplish your goals?

Edmonds: Politics exist when the organizational culture values power and control. Politics create insiders & outsiders – insiders get preferred office space and visible projects. Outsiders miss out.

Politics is a powerful, (usually) invisible force in organizations. If the politics are powerful enough to quash your project or remove resources you need, you may never get your goals accomplished.

If leaders tolerate or even encourage politics, those embedded political players and practices become even more embedded.

Some leaders are intentional about reducing politics in their organization. They first outline valued behaviors that incentivizes teamwork and cooperation, not individual glory and competition. They may restructure to enable self-directed work teams or eliminate formal bosses (W.L. Gore has done that for years; Zappos just shifted to that model).

A frontline worker will have little luck changing an organization’s politics. A leader can make great headway – if they choose.














Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. His new book, a New York Times best seller, is called Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin's Press) and his previous book, Me 2.0, was a #1 international bestseller.

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  • Waswa Balunywa

    Good but i don’t agree with not tolerating people. Empathy is a key attribute of a leader, and if you don’t tolerate but work towards better behavior you cannot be a good leader

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