Think Leadership Ideas

Cultivating An Appreciative Culture

If you aren’t paying attention to the company culture, you might be missing a powerful means to accelerate productivity, profitability, employee retention, and customer satisfaction – in short, your organization’s success.

My working definition of culture in organizational settings is what people do when the boss isn’t looking. Organizational culture is the behavior, attitude, and atmosphere that happen by default unless there is disciplined intention and action to do otherwise. Your organization’s culture either advances or inhibits success. When the norm of an organization’s culture is people both valuing their organization and making extra effort to advance its objectives, the culture itself becomes an asset that increases the value of the company. I call this an appreciative culture.

I use the word appreciative to describe a culture where people both contribute to a positive climate AND take care of the business. A double meaning of appreciate fits: to recognize with gratitude, and to increase in value over time. Appreciative cultures highly value competency and business results as much as they do feeling good about their workplace.

Southwest Airlines is a classic example of an organization with an appreciative culture, but you don’t have to be a big corporation to have one. A couple of months ago I got into a conversation with someone I recognized as a server from a local neighborhood restaurant. She casually but emphatically told me I should study her place of work as a great example of teamwork. I haven’t made a business study of the establishment, but can tell you it’s a good place to eat – and they have been running a successful business there now for three years in a location where at least three previous operators all quickly failed.

Culture impacts the bottom line. Daniel Goleman, in Primal Leadership, reports a study of service companies found that a one percent improvement in climate correlated with a two percent improvement in revenue. If cultivating a positive culture adds value, damaging a working culture can have huge negative impact. A colleague recently told me about a company she gladly worked for many years that had been profitable for several decades. The company recently was acquired by a group that was actively disinterested in anything not related to financials, such as leadership or culture. The company went bankrupt in less than a year under the new ownership.

Cultivating an appreciative culture can help your enterprise take off. You can start by asking yourself the following questions about your business:

1. Are expectations for people clearly articulated and understood?

2. Are the words, behavior, and emotional tone of leadership congruent with these expectations?

3. Does the organization regularly communicate how a person’s work contributes to the overall success of the organization?

4. Is the organization sensitive to matching individual strengths and desires to work assignments?

5. Does the organization frequently let people know when they’re doing a good job?

6. Does the organization provide regular opportunities for learning and growth?

7. Does the organization’s leadership routinely listen to ideas from employees?

If the answer to these questions is a resounding YES, then you have a great foundation for a culture that adds tremendous value to your organization. How? Cultivate is the operative word. Culture is a dynamic, living system, much like a garden. As in a garden you can’t make flowers or vegetables grow, but you can impact conditions where they flourish - you seed and nurture what you want, and weed what you don’t.

Leaders who seek to build synergy between good business results and a positive workforce take disciplined action to create positive work conditions and link these to a sound business strategy. They foster open channels of communication, and help people find the place they can make the best contribution. They do all they can to align people’s personal objectives with those of the company. These leaders know that when people are matched to work they enjoy and feel suited for, then they experience a contagious appreciation that customers find compelling.

It is my experience that people in appreciative cultures are particularly prone to having fun, and they know how to make fun a significant factor serving the interests of the organization. In an appreciative culture, fun is not a distraction from work but an indicator that the right work is occurring.

An appreciative culture also values diverse opinion, recognizing disagreements are natural and fertile grounds for ideas and innovation. Appreciative cultures, however, weed out dysfunction as soon as it can be recognized. They don’t let people get away with toxic behavior, understanding that obtaining business results through a wave of human destruction is short-sighted and quickly devalues an organization.

Start with creating positive conditions for optimum work, then acknowledge success, and practice until it becomes part of culture. When people enjoy their work, and work hard to take care of the business, you have an appreciative culture that perpetuates value throughout your organization.

by Tom Stevens (c)2004
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

This article may be freely reprinted in your company, association, or commercial publication (or website) under the following terms: that the author attribution, copyright notice, contact information, and this reprint notice be included; and that you inform us that you are using the article (samples appreciated).

** ** **

blog comments powered by Disqus