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Tips for Building a Credible Culture

Posted on Wed, May 20, 2009

Forget Gordon Gecko. In the post-Enron scramble to salvage shattered reputations, smart executives are rediscovering the timeless wisdom that greed isn't good. Good is good.

There's no question our dog-eat-dog culture rewards clever misbehavior; the outward appearance of success often serves as an accepted substitute for achievement. When we allow spin to be used as a synonym of deception and when cutting ethical corners can pass for courage, leading the old-fashioned way somehow seems dreadfully dull.

No piece of corporate folklore has done more damage than the falsehood that nice guys finish last. As the spectacular collapses of Enron and Arthur Andersen attest, nothing is more valuable than a good name. It was a great tragedy when a huge corporation went bankrupt, ruining the retirement plans of thousands of people, but that's not why Enron was one of the year's biggest stories. People forgive mistakes. The lies and deceptions still have the American Public obsessed.

What's the best thing about doing the right thing? It pays! Building and keeping trust are among the most important things you can do for your organization. Good people will line up to be associated with (and work for) a place that values honesty and integrity. But credibility doesn't just happen. It starts from the top, and like anything else of value, it must be cultivated and nurtured.

If you want to create a credible culture, the first important rule is to model the behavior you want to promote. If you want honest discourse, you must practice it. You have to share information or let people know when you can. You also have to reward the behavior you want when you see it. If members of your team make the effort to give honest feedback, even if it's criticism, you should thank them.

These practices are not easy, but they are critical to creating credible cultures in health care as the system becomes more burdened. The nursing shortages and budget crises at many health organizations mean we have less time to do our jobs and even less time to talk to each other. But we must. If you are going to build trust inside your organization, you have to make time to communicate.

Start by building an ethical culture in your organization. As leaders, we often are confronted by ethical dilemmas of competitive pressures and practices we cannot support. But we set the tone for our organizations. Actions speak louder than words. A set of guiding principals communicated to everyone in an organization will serve as an ethical compass. Don't be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. Rewarding ethical behavior ensures that you will get the benefit of the doubt.

Lead by example. Talk about the values of your organization from the top down and encourage conversation about ethical issues.

If doubt about an issue arises, put your policy in writing. Make it clear you value a culture of trust far more than quick fix solutions that cut dangerous corners.

Trust thrives on open communication. The people who work for you need to be able to ask questions and question decisions. In the case of Arthur Andersen a bad decision at one level got passed along the chain, and the failure to put on some brakes may bring down two companies.

As a leader, you don't want surprises, so don't assume your people know what's expected of them. Be clear about the kind of behavior you expect and find acceptable. Encourage others to express their opinions, even if they aren't what you want to hear. Companies that thrive foster a culture of openness. In his book Leading Quietly, Joseph Bodaracco makes the point, "The vast majority of problems calling for leadership are everyday situations faced by managers up and down the chain of command."

Rarely is an organization brought down by some major crisis or monumental scandal. Instead, organizations are undermined by questionable business decisions, made day after day, that gradually wear away credibility and trust. Honesty, integrity, and ethical clarity in all your dealings are what build long-lasting relationships. Clients and colleagues may not always be able to articulate exactly why they want to work with you, and they may resort to generalizations like, "she's a good person, " but they sense you are the kind of leader who will do right by them.

When your organization talks, don't you want people to listen? People recognize straight talk when they hear it, and given the choice between the unvarnished truth and the sugared half-truth (or a deliberate untruth), they'll reward the person who tells the truth every time.

We spend enormous resources maintining the appearance of success when the fact is that csuccess is far more likely if we are honest and sincere. Trust is th most valuable commodity your organization has. A credible culture can be a magnet that dreaws people and talent to your organization. Developing and maintaining trust in all of your relationships is one of the surest paths to success.

  • Reward people who communicate openly and build trust in the workplace; punish those who don't.
  • Talk about the values of your organization from the top down and encourage conversation about issues.
  • Build your own credibility bank by practicing open communications; if you make a mistake, you will get the benefit of the doubt.
  • Encourage questions. Trust thrives on open lines of communication. The people who work for you need to know it's OK to question a decision or priority.
  • Don't assume people know what is expected; be clear about the kind of behavior and communication you expect and find acceptable.

Suzanne Bates is a communications consultant and coach.


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