The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

June 4, 2017

The Culture Monster & The Culture Warrior

Is it okay to tell the truth to your boss? How does your team behave with each other? Do employees get away with victim language, or us-vs.-them language, or black/white language?  These are the questions that define your workplace culture.  And if the culture isn’t healthy, forget strategy. Leaders assess what’s working and how to change what needs to be changed.

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Voiceover: It’s a Northwest Lifestyle Weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss, this is The Boss Show, with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Jim Hessler: Today on The Boss Show we’re going to do Part 2 in a series on culture, on corporate culture – we’re calling it The Culture Monster and What To Do About It. I’m Jim Hessler, I’m The Business Guy, I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development and the author along with Steve Motenko, my co-host, of the book Land on Your Feet Not on Your Face.
Steve Motenko: And I would be the aforementioned cohost.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, I just stole your thunder.
Steve Motenko: That’s okay.
Jim Hessler: I used your name, I apologize.
Steve Motenko: Ah yeah, no it’s all right.
Jim Hessler: Who are you anyway?
Steve Motenko: I’m the aforementioned cohost.
Jim Hessler: Yes.
Steve Motenko: And I use the word aforementioned because-
Jim Hessler: It’s a Harvard word.
Steve Motenko: It’s a Harvard word, more than 10 letters and so that proves that I went to Harvard. Harvard-educated leadership coach, in fact, right here in the Seattle area. I do leadership executive coaching, personal development coaching, and I work with Jim in our Path Forward Leadership Development business.
Jim Hessler: This topic of culture is interesting. It’s the third Plank out of 12 Planks in what we call The Leadership Platform, which is our conceptual model for leadership in our book.  It’s also the basis of our leadership development workshop program, which is an 18-month program to help people learn to lead more effectively. This whole idea of culture is absolutely essential for the leader to understand. Let’s make sure, Steve you corrected me, I think appropriately on this last time, when we talk about leadership in this context, we’re talking about anybody who wants to have any influence at work. We’re not talking about the person in the corner office or the person with the big title.
Steve Motenko: You can lead in a single interaction with a coworker even if that coworker is not a boss or a direct report.
Jim Hessler: Yeah.
Steve Motenko: Every way that you show up displays leadership – or not.
Jim Hessler: When you think about culture you might tend to think of it as a very broad corporate culture, you can create cultures within teams, within relationships, within departments, so even though you might not have a lot of reporting relationships you can still help develop a culture even within the context of a single one-on-one relationship. I think you could argue, Steve, you and I have a culture.
Steve Motenko: Absolutely.
Jim Hessler: That exists within the context of our relationship.
Steve Motenko: Absolutely. We have norms of behavior we could talk about forever and bore people but norms of behavior between us that have evolved. Some intentional and some not – like any other culture. Your workplace culture for example, maybe the values, beliefs, and norms have evolved unintentionally and maybe you want to do something about that. Any place there is more than one person assembled, there is a culture.
Jim Hessler: We use in the book the term “cultivate culture,” and we also talked in the previous show about a tree with roots as a metaphor. The roots really representing in many ways the culture and we’ll break that down and talk a little bit about what those roots consist of. But the cultivate, I really like that term because culture isn’t something you can come in and wave a magic wand and change the culture. When I did turnaround work, which was a fundamental part of my career, I recognized that it would take three or four years to really fundamentally change the culture or any organization that I was leading.
Steve Motenko: Yeah we mentioned turning the ocean liner because you mentioned the roots of the tree metaphor, those roots are hidden, you can’t see them, and so because they’re so difficult to notice, the roots of your culture, they’re also very difficult to change.
Jim Hessler: Having said that, I think that’s a really good point. You can’t see the roots of the tree but the leader needs to see them or at least know they’re there. They might not be visible to everyone else but this is one of the things we want to make sure that we get across here. A leader is very tuned into the culture that they’re a part of. It’s part of your leadership challenge to recognize culture for what it is and then learn how to influence it in any way that you can. So you have to see things that other people don’t see, I guess.
Steve Motenko: So yeah, you’re constantly, I hope you don’t hate this metaphor, turning on the x-ray machine, to see things that are otherwise invisible.
Jim Hessler: Yes. I think that’s appropriate. I think that’s a responsibility that leaders have. We talk about in the book about being both a great champion and a great critic of your corporate culture. You can do both at the same time. You can love what your company is and want it to become moreso and you can also not like those parts of the company that aren’t what they could be or as they should be. It’s possible to have those two things. So today, this is part two of our visit with this inconsequential issue called culture, it’s huge, it’s everything, I think what you see more and more in the business literature that there’s more and more emphasis on culture as something that leaders have to pay attention to. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Steve Motenko: For lunch.
Jim Hessler: For lunch or breakfast or whatever.
Steve Motenko: One of the meals. But it’s really true. That expression is popular because it’s really true.
Jim Hessler: Yeah.
Steve Motenko: You can do all the strategizing in the world, in fac, next week we’re going to talk about how our beliefs, how our minds tend to be faulty, and you can be impacted by as much strategy as you can rationally believe and still your culture can derail it if your culture is not healthy.
Jim Hessler: Yeah. So we use the metaphor of a tree and the roots as being the invisible or less visible parts of the system, right, of the tree. Imagine that there’s five major tap roots for your tree. Four of them we talk about in the book and one of them for this conversation I’m adding. So those are number 1, beliefs and assumptions. That’s one root. The second root is your values, the third root is your norms of behavior, the fourth root is the language you use, and the fifth root for lack of a better terminology, I’m using rewards or consequences.
So let’s just go through those if you don’t mind, Steve. Beliefs and assumptions. So how as a leader to you attend to and notice and possibly influence the beliefs and assumptions of the people you work with? Well I think it starts with a word that you and I use more and more which is curious. I think leaders are insanely curious people. They’re really paying attention to the way people are behaving and asking why. This prevents you I think from also being in judgment of other people but rather in curiosity.
Steve Motenko: Yeah because again since beliefs are under the surface, you can see someone’s behavior as a leader, you can see a coworker’s behavior and not know what beliefs are driving those behaviors. If you don’t know what beliefs are driving the behaviors, you can’t change the behaviors in a sustainable way. So that’s where the curiosity comes in, for me, you gotta know what’s really going on in people’s minds that they’re not expressing that leads them to certain ways of being in a work place.
Jim Hessler: I think one way to characterize it, and I feel that this is something that’s changed significantly about my approach to things over the years as I’ve gotten older, is I’m much more likely to look at somebody and the way they’re behaving, and I think in my previous life I would go immediately to judgment about that, I think my inclination much more now is to say, I wonder why that person is behaving the way they’re behaving. I wonder what the underlying intention they had. I wonder what beliefs they’re operating with, what assumptions they’ve made that have led them to that conclusion that that course of behavior is the best one for them.
Steve Motenko: You tell the story often about early in your sales career, what the older sales people said, did you tell that in the first episode? I forgot.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, I did. That the part of the leader’s responsibility around the beliefs and assumptions of the organization is to say, is that really true? Does that really hold up to data? Is that a rational vs an irrational belief? The point about the word belief, if you look it up in the dictionary, it’s literally something that’s held to be true without evidence. I think you have to be very careful as a leader in your organization to examine everything with the beliefs with which the people who are running the business and whether those really hold water. I think one of the most jaw dropping questions you can ask in business, especially from a leadership perspective is, “Is that really true?”
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and followed up by, “How do you know that’s true?”
Jim Hessler: How do you know that’s true? What’s the evidence. So many times it’s just anecdotal or it’s the last thing that the person encountered and then they build a story and a belief around a very limited piece of information. So this thing about the beliefs and assumptions root is you want to get down and make sure that these aren’t just beliefs but that they are rational assumptions. So the next two words that we use, the next two roots that we identify are values and norms. I think that the thing that holds these two in the same category is that your organization has them whether or not they state them.
Steve Motenko: The values and norms that they state may be different from the-
Jim Hessler: The ones that are actually lived.
Steve Motenko: So Jim, how does values and beliefs differ?
Jim Hessler: A value, I think is something that, well, I wish I had better language for it, it’s something that you think is important enough to hold yourself to a certain standard of behavior or to make choices around your values. For example, how you spend your money as a person is probably a good indicator of your values. How you spend your time is probably a good indicator of your values. Some organization sit down and go through what I think can be a very healthy process or saying what do we, we together, we being the operative word, value most about this business? How do we want to be in the world?
Steve Motenko: So, the question I would ask you as you listen, is, if you go to your organization’s website and you see the values stated on the website or maybe the values that are hanging on a plaque on the wall, to what extent do you see the values that are being lived every day by the employees in the organization as in alignment or not with the values that are espoused? I think some of the worst organizations, the ones with the lowest morale, are the ones where there’s this huge gap between the values espoused and the values lived.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, employees with sniff that out within five minutes if there’s a lack of integrity around that. Some companies do a values’ statement for marketing purposes, which is exactly the wrong reason to do that. Values are things like, we should treat everyone with respect. Values are things like we shouldn’t do harm in the world. Our product or service should provide some meaningful value to the universe or whatever. We shouldn’t yell at each other. Right? Things like that. You can get pretty granular with your values system within your team or department.
Steve Motenko: Values might also focus on the morale of the employee. We treat our employees well because we know that when employees are treated well, then customers are treated well because the employees are happy.
Jim Hessler: The point with values is the same with norms is that whether you say out loud or not what your values are, they will be seen through your actions, through your behaviors, your choices, and in the way that you treat other people. So don’t even talk about values unless you’re willing to live into them, unless you’re willing to hold your organization accountable for living into them.
Steve Motenko: Again, it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what you live. The same is true for norms.
Jim Hessler: The same is true for norms and I think as I was driving into the studio today I had a good example of norms and that is the 60 mile an hour speed limit on Interstate 90 and nobody driving 60 miles an hour. Clearly it’s become a norm to drive more than 60 miles an hour. There’s no sign anywhere that says please drive more than 60 miles an hour, so this happens in business all the time. Being late for meetings, yelling at each other, interrupting each other, not responding to emails. These all become norms. They might as well be rules, even though they’re not rules because you see them acted out by people, especially people in positions of power, and you say, oh that’s just the way we roll here. Again, as a leader you need to pay close attention to how people are behaving and why, that’s what culture is all about.
One of the roots of culture in any business is language. The way we talk to each other. I know this is probably something near and dear to your heart, Steve, but it’s interesting when you walk into different businesses, how different that element of the culture can be from one company to another. I think it’s pretty obvious from some of the examples. For example, do we use defeatist language, do we use negative language?
Steve Motenko: Victim language.
Jim Hessler: Victim language, judgemental language. Again, something I think I’ve gotten religious about over the years is how much of our thoughts and beliefs and assumptions and values and everything else are formed around the words that we use, Mr. Psychology guy.
Steve Motenko: Yeah. I like to say language is the box out of which we can’t think. In other words, language determines your actual thought processes in ways that you don’t have access to, that your mind doesn’t have access to. Even saying that makes your mind want to explode but the point is that you have to be careful about how you use language because it’s not just how you think that influences your language or that drives your language, it’s actually your language that drives how you think. Both are true.
Jim Hessler: Absolutely. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to pay attention to the way people are talking in their organization. The fact is, being attentive and listening to how people talk you can learn a lot. Are people angry? Are they thinking as rationally as they could be?
Steve Motenko: Are they taking responsibility for themselves.
Jim Hessler: Are they taking responsibility, yeah.
Steve Motenko: Are they taking alternative perspectives? Not alternative facts, we don’t want to use that term, but alternative perspectives, are they stuck in their own perspective?
Jim Hessler: Are they listening to each other? Are they really listening to each other?
Steve Motenko: Are they using black and white language?
Jim Hessler: Black and white. That’s a great example. So when somebody in your organization comes storming into your office and says, “Well the accounting department can’t do anything right.” I think as a leader, you have a responsibility not only to deal with the complaint that that person has with the accounting department, but I think a really good way to respond to that is, “Really?” Anything? You’re telling me the accounting department doesn’t do anything right? Because what’s happening in that person’s mind as they use that language is they’re actually creating a belief about the accounting department, which their cognitive bias will then want that to be true. We talked about this a lot. They now want the accounting department to be screw ups-
Steve Motenko: And they will look for evidence that they are screw ups and they’ll probably find it.
Jim Hessler: Literally a coaching point in that moment as a leader is, “Tell me rationally, and factually, and specifically what the accounting department did in this moments that you’re upset about.?”
Steve Motenko: Not what your blanket interpretation of it is.
Jim Hessler: Don’t go all psycho on me about the accounting department here because the fact is that the accounting department isn’t that bad. So let’s talk about what they messed up at and help them get better.
Steve Motenko: And real quickly Jim, I know one of your language pet peeves is soft language in the workplace.
Jim Hessler: Soft language, unaccountable language, things like, “I’ll get to it. I’ll try my best. I’ll see what I can do.” These are worthless statements. The term, “I’m too busy,” we’ve talked about with our clients as being a worthless statement. A victim statement. Again, get your antenna up. Listen intently to how people are talking. Listen to the words coming out of your mouth as well.
Steve Motenko: Right. Listen to what they say, listen to what you say, and listen to how their language and your language literally shapes your reality and makes some things possible and others not possible.
Jim Hessler: One of the main roots in any organization that defines their culture is what behaviors are rewarded and what behaviors are punished. Who gets promoted? Who gets a bonus? These can drive a lot of behavior, obviously, that tends to tell us what the organization wants to see more or less of.
Steve Motenko: Rewards or punishments can be extremely subtle. Sometimes the more subtle, the more powerful. For example, Jim, if you’re my boss and I go in with an idea and you roll your eyes, I’ve just been punished.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, good, good.
Steve Motenko: Other than rolling your eyes, maybe you say, “Hey, you know what? That’s my responsibility, I’ll take care of it. If you could just do your job really well,” I’ve just been punished.
Jim Hessler: What you see is when you look at powerful people, whether you’re doing this consciously or not, when you look at people who have risen up through the hierarchy, you’re looking for how they got there. For example, if you’re in the room with a boss and that boss typically interrupts people, degrades people, calls people out in public, and then you see that this person’s making a quarter of a million dollars a year and getting promoted every couple of years, guess what? You’re going to be much more likely to act that way because you’ve seen that person has been rewarded in some way for being that kind of person.
Steve Motenko: They’ve been rewarded for punishing others essentially.
Jim Hessler: Exactly.
Steve Motenko: If you care less about your integrity and more about your climb up the career ladder, you may do the same thing.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, so everybody who has any sort of ambition is looking consciously or unconsciously throughout the organization to say, “what behavior gets rewarded? What behavior gets punished?” And like I said, they’re particularly looking at the leadership, so praise and criticism, who gets praised? Who gets criticized? Bonuses. Bonuses can be fraught with difficult because if you have five different departments in an organization and you have five very discreet and very different sets of bonus criteria for those five, you’re probably not going to see them working together very well. If the bonus structure, on the other hand, is a group bonus structure in which they’re all bonused on a pool of money that comes from all five of those departments, they’re much more likely to interact and support one another.
Steve Motenko: So you’re encouraging everybody to take responsibility for everybody as opposed to just keeping your head down in your own silo.
Jim Hessler: Right. So if you’re rewarding somebody for taking a very small view of the business, well then expect them to take a very small view of the business. That’s what they’re getting rewarded for doing. Think through all of this. Not just the obvious pay and promotion part, but what do your leaders look like in your organization?
Steve Motenko: How do they interact?
Jim Hessler: How do they interact? What are their relational skills? That’s the cue that people will take to form their own behavior in pursuit of that.
Steve Motenko: I like your term culture warrior. What does that mean?
Jim Hessler: I think if you’re a culture warrior, the way I would describe it is you walk into the business every day and you look at everything in a very mindful, open way. What do I see? What do I hear? How are people behaving? You ask yourself, “How did I help create that?” So you take a very broad and strong responsibility for creating the conditions under which other people behave. That’s what being a culture warrior means to me.
Steve Motenko: The Boss Show is produced by Path Forward Leadership. Our sound engineer today is Kevin Dodrill.
Jim Hessler: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at
Steve Motenko: That’s also where you can go if you’d like to subscribe to our podcast. We’re also on iTunes, on Stitcher, on SoundCloud, and maybe you want to bring us into your workplace, contact us at
Jim Hessler: Thank you for listening.
Steve Motenko: And don’t forget, Rule number six.
Jim Hessler: Rule number six.

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