How do you know if your culture is working?


May 9, 2013

culture definedMy friend Bill Woolsey (or follow him on Twitter) uses a great definition of the kind of culture that really makes a difference. Bill’s working definition is that culture is “values observed in language and behavior”. That’s it. Pretty simple to say, but not nearly as easy to actually accomplish.

Let’s break this statement down, and then take a look at how an effective coach could use each of these pieces.  You might be surprised at how easy it actually is.

Values observed: This is one of those sneaky statements, because it assumes clarity of values. Not only are the values present, but people engaged in the culture actually know what they are and universally understand them. That’s a big assumption, that may require significant effort. Do you know what your church’s values are? Your job? Even your family? Value alignment is an uphill battle, that you probably can’t revisit it too often. It takes repetition—often a LOT of repetition—to gain high levels of clarity on values. Have I mentioned that it takes repetition?

Observed in language: The words that get said in a culture are the thing(s) that frame where the culture is going. What are you talking about? The topics of conversation that a culture consistently grabs onto are the ideas that not only frame where the culture is, but also where it’s going. Think about a church that constantly talks about the way things used to be…that’s a church that has lost all forward momentum, and is hearkening back to the way things used to be or The Good Old Days. Or think about how word-of-mouth impacts what movies you see, what TV shows you watch or even how you spend your weekend. The things you talk about indicate what’s a priority for you.

Observed in behavior: But, bottom line is what you do shows the highest level of ownership you can offer. We’ve all been a part of a team (or coached a team) that wanted to talk about what was important, but never actually do anything. Nothing destroys forward momentum quicker than long conversations that don’t lead to action.

So how could a coach use these three pieces to help coach toward culture? Each section of this statement builds on a different part of the coaching process. Values observed is all about listening, either with your ears or one of the other senses. As a coach, how could you help a client become attuned to where those values are actually observable? What questions could you ask that would build clarity about the organization’s or church’s values? A tremendously powerful coaching question about this is “How easy is it for people to find a written copy of your values?” You can follow this up with “Where do you see this coming to life?”

The language a coach uses also will inform culture. If this definition of culture is adopted, regular check ins about language are a must. Coaches could ask “What language are we hearing regularly? How does this help/hurt what we value?” Powerful follow up questions center on what language do we need more of, and what should be taken out of the organizational lexicon.

Behavior follows a similar standard. “What behaviors are bringing our values to life?” is a great conversation starter for evaluating what’s actually happening in an organization. The converse is also true: “What behaviors are we seeing that are getting in the way of our values?” or “What behaviors are contradictory to our values?” Coaches may need channels beyond the direct input to hear about what behaviors are actually going on. You may need to develop accountabilty channels beyond the traditional ones.

How do you measure culture? How do you inventory whether you are actually living out the culture you think you have? If you’ve got a coaching strategy that would be helpful for others, I’d love to hear it in the comments!

For more from Jonathan Reitz, please click here.

Jonathan ReitzJonathan Reitz has a number of impressive titles at CoachNet Global (Chairman/CEO/Guy with Coffee).  Jonathan has been coaching since 1996 and has worked with over 500 clients in the church, the non-profit sector and the business world. 

  “Coaching plays a part in the kind of leadership the world needs,” says Jonathan Reitz.  “I want to be a part of that.”

For a daily coaching question from Jonathan Reitz, follow him on Twitter @jonathanreitz  Or, you can email hime at or by phone at 440.550.4374.

Comments (1) - Post a Comment
I really liked this article on values observed. Most of my coaching/mentoring is with young singles or young moms. How do you know what kind of husband you desire or HOW to train your kids if you don't understand your own value system and the system(s) around you? I'll use these core questions that will really help to ultimately define that for folks. Thanks, Jonathan!
Marty Nickoley at 4:33pm EDT - May 9, 2013

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