That one thing you say all the time

The subtle messages that shape your organization’s culture

“Well, you know, I’m on the bottom of the totem pole here, not just an analyst, but an analyst intern.”

“Don’t ever say that. Our analysts are some of the smartest people here, and we’re even more selective with our summer analysts. We need everyone to be successful, and we have big expectations for you.”

I had this conversation many times in my early weeks at my first real summer job, with everyone from a fellow intern who had started just a few weeks before me to a partner who had served for twenty years. What was amazing, was that everyone responded in exactly the same way, “We don’t think like that here.”

Over a decade later, I’m still impressed. While I discovered that my future wasn’t in consulting, the lesson about culture really stuck around.

After all, organizational culture isn’t what we announce in first week orientation. It’s not what we hope or wish our culture would be. Our culture is about how we act and make decisions, every single day.

The way we speak reinforces our culture and helps us share that culture with new team members. It should follow then that we should talk about the important aspects of our culture frequently. Even more, we should gently but consistently correct talk that doesn’t fit with the way we do things.

In other words, especially in times of growth, it’s the one thing that we say all the time that shapes and maintains our culture. An engineering team might talk about how they are professional engineers, unwilling to make drastic quality compromises for unrealistic timelines. A company might speak relentlessly about scale (Google) or delight (Apple). And so it becomes.

Unfortunately it also works in the opposite direction. Snippets like “we need two extra resources to do that,” said frequently enough, dehumanize your on-the-ground team members to “resources” and suggest a sort of interchangibility that is destructive to culture. A teammate bragging about how far they stretch their expense account robs a culture of independent responsible decision-making. Imagine the impact if peers and leadership were empowered to pull these individuals aside: “that’s not how we do it here.”

Like most culture change, this starts with your example. Figure out the one or two values you want to encode into the dialogue of your organization. Then, start saying them all the time. Respond with enthusiasm when others follow. Guide those who use old speech patterns to upgrade their language.

This isn’t to say that talk is all the matters in culture. Action ultimately matters more. It’s also not a prompt to squelch dissent or enforce uniformity of opinion — obviously that’s destructive. It’s about being specific “one thing” and consistent “all the time.”

Give the one thing you say all the time a chance. Organizational dialogue is easier to reinforce and change than organizational behavior, and with focus and consistency can have profound impact on the attitudes and actions that make up your team’s identity.

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