Developing the Norms and Expectations of a Strong Culture

The trials of 2020 have forced many people in a position of leadership to review the alignment of their vision and values with their execution of duties as managers. Those that are laboring to build strong cultures in their various organizations understand that much of their successes come through trial and error. In the words of Debasish Mridha, “Experience comes from failure and success comes from experience.”

The mindsets and habits that propel thriving cultures have to be consistently refreshed. It is important to remind yourself that those who are doing well are not smarter or more talented; they likely have a bit more experience than you. Learning from the experiences, aka the failures, of others helps you to shorten your learning curve for professional development. As you pursue building a strong culture, don't make it any more difficult than it has to be. If you build a culture that is good to your people, your people will be good to your clients. Word will spread and you should have a great shot at remaining competitive as you work with your team to adapt to ongoing challenges and evolutions in the market.

As you build your experiences in your efforts to develop your culture, perhaps this picture will help you develop the right mindset and habits for your journey.


Culture could be described as the culmination of your organizational norms (X-axis) and expectations (Y-axis).

Norms are what you do. If you stand back and observe yourself and your team, what do you see? Are your actions in alignment with your stated vision, values, and objectives? The question is not whether you have a culture, the question is whether you have been intentional in developing it. Do you communicate your expectations and do the norms you practice and/or allow follow those principles?

Are you, as a person in a position of leadership, practicing:
(A) Dissonance
(B) Status Quo
(C) Vision Void
(D) Alignment
(E) Other

Expectations are both those that you declare as well as those that are understood. There often is dissonance between what is done and what is said. Expectations can also be revealed in how you hire, train, discipline, reward, promote, and fire. Similar to parenting, if you say one thing but do another or don't follow through, your team (like children) will continue to test just how far your boundaries can be pushed.

  • Does your hiring process include measures to determine if a candidate is a good cultural fit?
  • How consistently do you train your team on hard and soft skills relevant to your work?
  • When someone acts out of character for the organization, how are they dealt with?

Consistency is critical to developing norms of behavior that embrace and enhance your culture. How often do we set out to make a change but fail to stick with it long enough to determine whether it is a success or failure and why. I would suggest that you don't make any changes that you are unwilling to commit at least 90 days to the testing of the item's merits. Like a scientist, you should have a thought-out hypothesis of what you plan to do, why you think it will work, and how you believe it will affect the team. Most changes have an arc of high investment and low initial productivity, until you get over the "hump" and can see whether the item is going to be effective.

Accountability, from top to bottom, is critical to sustaining and further developing your culture. Expectation means that you are both intentional in your development as well as your communication with your team. Communication in this instance would include training. I recently shared a working definition of accountability that I think is helpful. "Accountability is having a healthy fear that you may be the weakest link on your team and working diligently to ensure that it isn't so." This should not be confused with having a low self-worth or value. What I am attempting to convey is that you want to be on a team of people where you feel a strong desire to ensure you are carrying your weight and others are doing the same. Focus on your roles and responsibilities and work to be the best you can at those. A team helps fill in the gaps only after every individual is 100% committed to mastering their area of contribution.

Status Quo
Low Expectations + Low Norms

You may have a poster on the wall that communicates your "expectations" but in practice there is little communication, training, development, or discipline that reflects, enhances, or defends those stated values. Your norms exist but they are not intentional. Jocko Willink has a great quote, "When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard.” Too often people in a position of leadership know what needs to be done but don't have the resolve to see things through internal opposition and/or resistance to change. If you aren't disciplined in your own personal and professional development, you are not going to be authentic in your efforts to improve your team. Start by leading yourself so that you can lead by example.

Dissonance
High Expectations + Low Norms

You have the poster on the wall and you have a lot of meetings, but in practice these activities are not intentional or effective at impacting the norms of your organization. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I have been in many organizations where regular "training" occurs but it is rarely designed to address real world scenarios faced by the team members and the standards don't apply to the "money makers" who get a pass on bad behavior. You have to dismount your high horse if you are going to impact change where it matters, at the ground level of your organization. Roll your sleeves up and get some dirt under your fingernails as you work with your team to make positive changes.

Vision Void
Low Expectations + High Norms

Those people in a position of leadership who do very little to develop their cultures and yet somehow have periods of high performing teams, enigmas. The biggest threat in this scenario is for the manager to take too much of the credit for their team's success and not understand who the real drivers of that success have been. Often this type of leader rewards those who they like rather than those who actually contribute and it won't be long before those people get tired of being overlooked. The beauty of this type of organization is that all that is needed is a bit of investment, allowing those who shine to formalize the effort, and the people in a position of leadership to defend the culture. When you begin the process of raising the expectations, across the board, to meet the norms, many who have been hiding in the shadows, benefiting from those at the front of the lines, will be revealed and will loudly resist. They may say, "Why mess up a good thing with all these expectations and accountability?" Be brave. Identify and give credit where it is due. This doesn't make you weak as a manager; it will ensure the sustainability of your current high.

Alignment
High Expectations + High Norms

Where your norms meet your expectations, you have alignment of values. There is consistency in your actions and accountability among all of your team members. This doesn't mean that you can let your foot off the gas and coast to victory; far from it. The culture sets the tone and pace; it rallies your team to be disciplined even in periods where motivation may be lacking. All of the items from phases prior apply. You must continue to hire, train, develop, discipline, and fire based upon these expectations and norms (your culture). As you grow and the market changes, you have to adapt.

If you become discouraged with your progress, remember that the most important component is to be intentional with your process. Success grows experiences, and experience sprouts from failure. When you can learn from the experiences of others, you may be able to shorten your learning curve. The benefits of developing the right mindset and habits to build a thriving workplace culture will show fruit if you stick with it.

Jon Isaacson is a freelance writer, business coach, speaker and 17-year veteran of the property restoration industry. His organization, The DYOJO - The Do Your Job Dojo, specializes in helping individuals, teams and organizations to Develop Intentionally. Jon also hosts the DYOJO Podcast which features discussions with insurance entrepreneurs and is available on Apple, Spotify, Anchor and Google.