13 Apr #116 – Words That Shape Culture
ESSENCE: We believe words are important and powerful. Words (and disordered words) can either support or undermine efforts to move an organization’s culture toward faithfully “doing right” through business a better way. Disordered words can affect how leaders shape an organization’s culture and view its WHY–the heart of the organization. For example, “integrate your faith into your work” is just one example of disordered faith as usual words that can deceive and side-track a well-intentioned leader trying to cultivate an intentional culture. We believe there are some “words” with the power to help a leader stay on the “ancient road” to business a better way–words that capture some critical Biblical beliefs, values and priorities regarding work and business. An organization’s words shape its culture, which shapes the behavior of its people, which drives its results.
In post #113, we explained why we believe words are important and powerful. Words that align with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities can inspire and guide us toward God’s “best”. Disordered words that embody the world’s priorities rather than Biblical priorities infect our thinking, which ultimately infects our heart.
In our last two posts, we looked at how disordered words infect our understanding of, and relationship with, work (#114—Words that Shape Work) and how disordered words can also shape and distort our very identity and our behavior at work (#115–Words that Shape Identity).
But disordered words can also affect how leaders shape an organization’s culture and communicate its WHY–the heart of the organization. Words (and disordered words) can either support or undermine efforts to move an organization’s culture toward faithfully “doing right” through business a better way. For example, “integrate your faith into your work” is just one example of disordered faith as usual words that can deceive and side-track a well-intentioned leader trying to cultivate an intentional culture. .
What is Culture?
We have talked a lot about culture in prior blogs. Culture in an organization is “how we do things around here”–how people behave, how people treat other people, how people are motivated, what people perceive to be valued, what behavior is tolerated, encouraged or discouraged, which policies and rules are followed and which are ignored. It is an ever-changing reality that must be cultivated and curated. It is growing and evolving even if management does nothing about it–in fact, it grows and evolves BECAUSE management does nothing about it.
More than lofty purpose statements and value lists, the culture of an organization reflects its true heart–the WHY and HOW behind everything it does. If the WHY and HOW reflected in the culture does not match well with the WHY and HOW on the website, the website probably has it wrong.
The Importance of Culture
You have probably heard it said that “Culture eats strategy for lunch” (or sometimes for breakfast), yet so many organizations either ignore culture or even cultivate a toxic culture. As we have said many times in prior posts, purpose and values define the culture of an organization; the culture shapes the behavior of the people in the organization; and the behavior of the people drives the results of the organization.
Culture is important because it defines the day-to-day experience that various stakeholders have with the organization. It is how employees experience their work-day, how vendors experience contract negotiations and contract performance, and how customers experience interacting with the organization.
Unlike lofty purpose statements and value lists, culture is where the rubber meets the road and the boots hit the ground. It drives whether people are engaged or disengaged, flourishing or dying, competing or collaborating. It is important to remember that the values driving culture are the “real” values, which may or may not be the “stated” values.
How important is culture? A recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review concluded:
A toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. . . . A toxic corporate culture is the single best predictor of which companies suffered from high attrition in the first six months of the Great Resignation.
Words that Can Undermine Efforts Toward a “Business a Better Way” Culture
Integriosity® is a path to faithfully “doing right” through business a better way–business in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities. It calls for a culture that arises from seeking first God’s Kingdom as instructed in Matthew 6:33. We believe it is business in alignment with the “ancient path” of God’s design for humanity and His creation.
As we described way back in post #024 (Faith As Usual–Placebos and Side Roads), there are common Placebos that can divert faithful leaders from the “ancient paths” down Side Roads. At the root of these Placebos are words–often faith as usual words that either communicate “bad theology” or at least poorly communicate good theology. Here are a few examples of “bad” words:
“Business is a secular endeavor, and the only sacred role of business is to provide a platform for evangelizing people and for generating wealth that can be used to help the poor or to support ministries that evangelize people”. We called this the “Save or Give” Pill. The problem with this message is that it sees business as a secular platform for sacred work, rather than a sacred platform itself. It flows from a narrow “Two-Part Gospel”. While it is true that evangelizing and generously donating profits are “good”, it is also true that they can happily co-exist with a worldly culture centered on Profit as Purpose as its WHY. And that is not God’s “best”.
“Integrate your faith into your work”. We called this the “Add Some Faith” Pill. The problem with this message is that it gets things backwards and can lead a person to see their work or business as the “main thing” and their faith as the “sugar on top”. To have the power to transform the heart of a business, faith and work integration must be understood as “integrating your work into your faith”. The “Add Some Faith” Pill can deceive a leader into believing that the integration of faith and work is principally about sprinkling some “faith” pixie dust over the organization to make it look and feel “Godly” without needing to change its WHY–and that leads down the Side Road of Cosmeticizing. A business with a worldly culture centered on Profit as Purpose as its WHY can still be made to look and feel “faithful”. Looking “Godly” is “good”, but a Biblically-aligned WHY is “best”.
“God will bless your business with increased growth and profit if you integrate your faith and run it as a Christian business”. We call this the “Bless You” Pill. Aside from the fact that it is not true, the problem with this message is that it starts leaders out with a corrupted WHY and leads down the Side Road of Prosperitizing. It treats faith/work integration as a means to a worldly end–a management approach that can assist Profit as Purpose. It provides little basis upon which to transform a worldly culture into a Kingdom culture centered on a bigger WHY. Doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons may look “good”, but it is not God’s “best”.
“You should move your business from success to significance”. We call this the “Success First” Pill. Whereas the “Bless You” Pill starts leaders out with a corrupted WHY, this message starts them out with a corrupted WHEN and can lead down the Side Road of Interimizing. It suggests that getting the organization up and running and successful is the first priority–faith/work integration can come later. In the meantime (which is likely forever), a worldly culture centered on Profit as Purpose is acceptable to achieve worldly “success”. Delayed obedience is disobedience.
Although we may not realize it, language and the specific words used within your company on a regular basis have a major impact on your company’s culture. (Maggie Wooll)
Words that Can Support Efforts Toward a “Business a Better Way” Culture
In explaining the RE-IMAGINE and RE-ALIGN steps of Integriosity, we discussed at length the importance of words that describe Purpose, Values and Culture. We also stressed how critical it is for words that establish the real purpose, values and culture to be in alignment with the stated purpose, values and culture. For example, “real” words used by a manager to dehumanize an employee undermine any “stated” value words about treating people with respect. The culture becomes what is actually encouraged, discouraged and tolerated.
But there are some powerful words that can help leaders trying to cultivate an intentional culture stay off the Side Roads and stay on the “ancient road” toward business a better way. They derive from the eight keys outlined in post #065. Just a bunch of nice phrases? Remember, our words become our actions, which become our habits, which become our values, which become our destiny. We believe they capture some critical Biblical beliefs, values and priorities regarding work and business that can help identify and push back against deceptive “disordered words”.
- “God’s creation, and what we do and create with God’s creation, matter to God, which means that work and business (including the goods and services they provide, the way that humans and other parts of creation are treated, and what is done with the wealth generated) matter to God.”
- “Work and business are sacred activities with intrinsic Kingdom value, because they are part of creation and are vehicles for humans to live out Imago Dei and the commandments to love God and love their neighbors.”
- “As stewards of God’s creation, we are charged with caring for it and cultivating it to further the ultimate purpose for which we and all of creation were made–to glorify the Creator.”
- “Work and business exist as part of God’s design for the flourishing of humans, communities and creation, which glorifies God.”
- “God cares about relationships, and business culture is about relationships.”
- “As platforms for productivity, creativity, wealth creation, and living out the commandments to love God and love our neighbor, work and business are important to facilitating our participation in God’s restoration plan for His Kingdom.”
- “Because work and business exist as part of God’s design for the flourishing of humans, communities and creation, maximizing flourishing must be made the end of business and profit must take its proper place as a means to that end.”
- “God cares about the heart–the WHY of a person and the WHY of a business–far more than a superficial Godly appearance.”
We believe these “words” have the power to help a leader stay on the “ancient road” to business a better way. We like these observations on language and culture from Maggie Wooll:
Although we may not realize it, language and the specific words used within your company on a regular basis have a major impact on your company’s culture. . . . The language you use acts as a moral compass for your people, influencing how they think, act and feel in different situations. . . . Language doesn’t just impact the way people behave at work, it also impacts the types of processes and company rituals we create. . . . Language doesn’t just impact how we work, it can also change how we feel about work.
PERSONAL NOTE (from PM): I am becoming convinced that no words have more power to transform the culture of a business than “love your neighbor” and the Golden Rule–treat others as you would like to be treated. It makes us focus on “serving” rather than “being served”, people rather than profit, being “other-focused” rather than “me-focused”. I was speaking to someone recently who professed not to have a Biblical faith. When I suggested that these were basic Biblical principles for business, he said “now you’re speaking my language”–speaking his “words”–speaking what God placed in his heart.
In looking for strong quotes about the power of words, I was reminded of this line from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams) tells his students “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Below is a video clip of this powerful scene.
John Keating - Dead Poet's Society
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Photo Credit: Original photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash (photo cropped)