Creating culture: encourage more, tolerate less


Posted by Amanda Fajak - 28 April, 2015

As we’ve explored in the previous entries of this ‘Defining Culture’ series, culture is the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged, discouraged or tolerated by people and systems over time. With this definition locked in, let's take things a step further.

 Creating culture: encourage more, tolerate less

What are the mechanisms we have at our disposal to encourage and discourage? And why is tolerating a problem?

When I was working in a high safety industry – where poor behaviours are particularly costly – I used to say "you get the behaviours you tolerate".  At the same time as you are talking about and focussing on a behaviour that you want to see, the behaviours you are ignoring are sending messages that you tacitly approve of them. Some of those behaviours don’t matter, other behaviours cost lives.

I want to briefly introduce you to a model that we use at Walking the Talk. Our view is that culture is created by the unspoken messages transmitted about what is really valued in your business. These messages are sent through three mechanisms:


  1. Behaviours - Such as what is role modelled by leaders, what occurs in meetings and emails, as well as how we interact with each other.
  2. Symbols - Our use of finite resources, such as time and money. There can only be so much budget, so much time, so many possible promotions, so many offices. Every time you make a choice about how you use these finite resources, you are sending a clear message about what is truly valued in your organisation and by you.
  3. Systems - How we use our business systems – including HR systems – sends a message about what is valued. i.e. Do we reward on team or individual behaviour? Do we measure results on a regular basis? How are we structured?


When we encourage, discourage and tolerate behaviour, we are using a range of these mechanisms. When talking to organisations, I find that when people think about influencing behaviour, they naturally revert to the systems aspect and tend to underemphasise the importance of behaviour and symbols. Let’s look at how important behaviours and symbols can be:

In a safety environment, particularly in an electricity company, workers wearing gloves is an important safety precaution. If a manager walks past an employee not wearing gloves he/she has two options available to them: 1. say something: "it’s not safe to work without gloves can you please put your gloves on" (the behaviour is speaking up) or 2. walk past and say nothing, thereby tacitly approving the person not wearing the gloves. On the converse, how often would a manager walk past an employee who IS wearing their gloves and say nothing? From many years of working in the safety sector, the feedback that concerns me most is when I hear people say: "What is the point doing it right when nobody notices?’"

The antidote to tolerating is as much about noticing the good behaviour as it is about noticing the things that are not acceptable. One of my favourite pieces of research highlighting the importance of noticing good behaviour [1] states that more effective teams have a higher ratio of positive comments (“I agree, that’s a great idea”) to negative comments (including sarcasm and disparaging comments) . This ratio sits at nearly 6 positive to every 1 negative comment for high performing teams and at 0.36 to 1 for low performing teams. The ratio of positive to negative comments is a powerful symbol and a very valuable one when encouraging behaviours to reoccur.

If we look at some of our high profile corporate disasters, the role of tolerance is evident. Take the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010. A former official with BPs drilling operations was questioned on whether he had been asked to choose cost over safety. After a long pause, he replied "not exactly". When the lawyer pressed him about that hesitant 6 second pause, he replied "I was never given a directive to cut corners or to deliver something unsafely, but there was tremendous pressure on cost".  In this instance, neither encouraging nor discouraging meant tolerating.

Let's take Enron, which collapsed in 2001, as another example. In 1987, within the first few years of the company’s inception, two rogue traders found guilty of a multi-million dollar trading conspiracy, were kept on the payroll. [2] The lack of discouragement of poor behaviour sent a message of tolerance that probably set the tone for the company’s collapse nearly 15 years later.

These are tragic examples of what’s tolerated delivering an outcome to an organisation. Often the impact is smaller. We tolerate meetings where there’s lots of discussion and no decision, so we become an organisation that doesn’t make decisions. We tolerate people asking for more and more detail and data before acting, so we become a slow-paced organisation. We tolerate people working on their own and not engaging and sharing information with others, and then we become a siloed organisation.

My advice to organisations looking to work on their culture? Get clear on the important things you need to stop tolerating and start encouraging and discouraging more. Don’t forget that magic ratio. 6:1. Encourage: discourage.


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[1] Heaphy, E. &amp; Losada, M. (2004). <em><a title="The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model" href="">The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: </a><a title="The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model" href="">A Nonlinear Dynamics Model</a></em><strong> </strong><em>American Behavioral Scientist</em>,  47: 740-765,
[2] Cruver, B. (2002).<em><a title="Enron - The Anatomy of Greed" href=""> The unshredded truth from an Enron insider: Enron Anatomy of Greed</a></em>



Topics: Behaviour, Leading culture, Symbols, Systems, Amanda Fajak

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