Criticize In Private, But Not If Your Culture Is On The Line

How Do You Leverage Your Core Values to Create an Aligned Company Culture

“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior a leader is willing to tolerate.”

– Gruenter & Whitaker in School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It

When I speak to groups of executives and CEOs, I ask them the question, “when an employee violates a core value in a meeting with a group of their peers and yourself, should you as the leader call attention to it then and there, or wait until after the meeting to say something?”

The responses vary. Some believe that you shouldn’t criticize people in public because it undermines their leadership in front of their peers and could damage their morale. Others say it depends on the seriousness of the situation. Another camp says that the appropriate response is to call it out.

When an individual violates the values of the company, leaders can find themselves in conflict between their own accountabilities and the feelings of an employee.  The conflict leaders face when choosing between public criticism of an employee and the safeguarding of culture should not be a conflict at all.  Culture must win out.  Addressing cultural violations in private will not reinforce the value system to the greater team and will eventually degrade the culture.  Addressing them in public will reinforce and strengthen Culture.

Adhere to Your Core Values, Consistently

Yes, there are violations in the workplace that are worse than others. But depending on where you as the leader decide to draw that line as to what is acceptable or not, the culture you are creating may not be the one that you desire.

The trick is to create an open culture.  Once business values are determined, be sure to also establish behavioral norms, or non-negotiable behaviors that reinforce the values.  Communicate clearly that you will look out for those behaviors and let your team know that you will call them out publicly if violated (or praise them if it is a reinforcing behavior).  You have now set the stage with them to do so. And you don’t have to be dramatic about it. And then move on. Ten seconds, no drama, point made, culture saved. Ultimately, core values should be at the heart of every leadership discussion.

Don’t forget that the leader must lead by example, and that any behaviors that violate the norms must also be called out.  A strong and healthy culture should hold everyone accountable to the high standard that culture demands.

Create an Open Company Culture

Leaders are human and will at some point in time violate the desired cultural norms.  Whether that is arriving late to a meeting, or something more significant.   While leaders must self-regulate and be conscious of their own adherence, they must also be prepared to hear it from people in the company at any level.  If it is important enough to call out publicly for an employee, it most certainly is important enough if the violation comes from the leader.

It’s not easy to create an environment where employees are willing to call out their leaders for cultural violations, but a little humility, and a lot of practice and the results can be outstanding.

Changing behaviors is the hardest, but most effective change to make. The right behaviors drive culture, increase engagement and reduce employee churn. But there are no shortcuts. Make sure you paint a picture in the minds of your people of the behavior you expect.  Constantly test yourself and your people to be on the lookout for representative behaviors and violations of your core values.

And as was stated at the beginning, do not tolerate poor behavior or you will end getting a culture that is full of it.