Cultural permission is the tone, attitude and language that emanates from the executive suite. It is a mantra, expressed in oft-used catch phrases and philosophies that move like waves through the organization. They get adopted and interpreted as actions to be followed. They become part of everyday lexicon and cultural idioms that people hear coming from the highest levels, and form a platform for what the organization believes and expects of its people. “Get it done!” “We will not be denied.” “Take no prisoners!” These are just a few of the things I heard coming up in the business world, and from my perspective, no good came from any of them.
As a former New Yorker, now a London resident, it has been nearly impossible to avoid the drama of News Corporation’s phone hacking scandal, which has shuttered a more than 100-year-old newspaper and, even as of this writing, has executives and politicians alike running for cover. It is yet another in a catalog of companies caught up in the misdeeds of their people. I was struck by the steadfast claims of executives that they had no knowledge of inappropriate acts, and certainly had not condoned any inappropriate actions. Yet, the inappropriate behavior seems to have happened not just randomly, but systemically.
The real drama however, unfolded not when the leaders of the company claimed, perhaps accurately, that they were unaware of and shocked by the actions of errant employees hacking phones, manipulating markets and cooking the books. The real drama happened long before — when these leaders played a major role in setting the cultural climate for inappropriate actions to unfold. In the race to find culpability, what doesn’t get talked about is the very climate that creates the conditions for people to behave badly and feel perfectly justified in their behavior. It is, in fact, the very same thing that creates an environment and provides the fuel for people to conversely do great, generous and far-reaching things. It boils down to cultural permission.
Take Enron, for example. Lurking amidst Enron’s excesses were the unmistakable cultural cues that I believe drove employee behavior. “We’re an aggressive culture”, “Guys with Spikes”, “Money is the only thing that motivates” and “Rank and Yank” are but a few of the statements heard. Is it any wonder traders thought they had the right to shut off electricity supplies and manipulate the market?
The Power of the Spoken Word
One of my greatest mentors said to me upon being awarded my first real management role, “Well kid, welcome to the club. You are now dinner conversation.” He let me know in no uncertain terms that what I said and how I said it would be discussed at every dinner table of every employee in the place. He taught me that I had a vital duty to be certain that the language I used and the themes I shared would result in a positive, constructive and motivating force, mindful always that what I said, however offhanded, would be seen as a directive — interpreted and acted upon.
The Seeds of Greatness
One thing common to the fraternity of leaders I have known is the rapid recognition of the power of the “bully pulpit.” The words you share travel like lightening and when they arrive at your people’s doorstep…they act on them. Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully-prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share. The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentlemen.” Or, Rudy Giuliani, when he was working to build a better New York, stating that “People created the problem so people can fix it,” and “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. For my company, there are several phrases we use, chief among them being “Generosity of Spirit.” I believe when you set out to do something worthy for someone, it’s honorable in the first instance, and comes back to you in the second. It shapes a climate…and a bottom line.
Choose Your Language Carefully
Try this: Write down the various phrases and expressions you use regularly. Look them over, and ask yourself what permission you think they invoke? What behaviors do you think your employees will take on when they hear them?
If they exist, write down the legacy phrases that float through the organization. Are they healthy? Do they need erasing?
If you don’t have a stable of rich language, then there’s an opportunity for you to craft it, and add this language to your overall internal motivation and communications program to inspire and mobilize your people. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks. It will provide the cultural permission you wish to give.