The Key to Great Culture


There is a lot of talk about great culture going on out there. The labor market is tight and employers are doing everything they can to attract talent. But there is one key ingredient that is essential for great culture, and if you have it you will retain your best talent, attract great candidates, and foster the thriving work environments that truly engage employees.

The Key Ingredient

That key ingredient is great refereeing: to have a great culture you need to be a great ref.

Here is what good refereeing looks like:

Someone says something in a meeting that is disrespectful of a colleague. A good referee asks for the group to pause, and says, “I want to be able to hear your concern so that we can resolve the issues that we face as a team, and when you frame your concerns in a way that belittles your colleague it makes it hard to hear. I’d like you to restate your question in a way that is respectful of your colleague.”

What happens when someone speaks up?

·        The group learns to be accountable to one another.

·        The person who was disrespected hears that there is a distinction between the tone of how something was raised and the problem or issue that is the pain point at hand.

·        The person who spoke disrespectfully discovers a boundary for their behavior. They have to work in the moment to reframe how they present their concerns, and learn to raise issues respectfully.  It should be an expectation that concerns need to be brought forward respectfully in order to be addressed – if respect is missing the disrespect gets addressed instead of the issue that was raised.

Refs Know the Rule Book

To be a great ref, you need to know the Rule Book. To get and preserve a great culture the team needs to decide what behaviors they want and don’t want. Those behaviors need to be named and commonly understood. “Respect” is not a good Rule. It is too vague. Respect means a lot of different things to people. Defining these words with specific behaviors help teams become good referees. When respect is better defined people know what, specifically, to do:

We demonstrate respect by:

·        listening without interrupting

·        Speaking directly to someone when we have a conflict or concern to address

·        Coming prepared to meetings – having reviewed materials

·        Meeting deadlines that were agreed upon

·        Communicating regularly with colleagues who need to be informed about changes in our work…

You get the idea. When I sit down with a team to work on Ground Rules we get down to the specifics. What exactly does this look like in real time? People need to know what success looks like before they can strive to achieve it.

Creating Ground Rules with your team is not complicated. Check my blog on this topic here.

On the Best Teams, Everyone Referees the Game

A final word about great refereeing: it is a Team Activity. Having a team talk through how they will hold one another accountable for their missteps helps people learn to referee, and sets the expectation that colleagues don’t need to wait for a leader to call the foul. They are empowered to speak up and help referee the game.

There is never one referee on the field in professional sports. When a game is being played it takes a lot of eyes to help ensure the game is played well.

That maxim we learned as kids still applies: When you see something, say something.

Now, let’s Play Ball!