Every organization, every ministry, every team has a culture. Much has been written about culture, and essentially culture is the shared values and beliefs beneath the surface that ultimately drive the behavior of the organization. This means an organization’s culture has direct bearing on how the organization acts. Terrance Deal, in his book Corporate Cultures, said culture is “the way things get done around here.” So, when unhealthy values exist in a culture, they adversely impact how the organization behaves.
Because shared values and beliefs form an organization’s culture, when one speaks of “changing the culture,” one is really speaking of replacing the values beneath the surface. It is insufficient to merely call out an unhealthy value and think it will just go away. Leaders must starve unhealthy values in the culture they are stewarding. And these unhealthy values must be starved until they are dead, and they don’t die easily. Here are three ways to starve the bad values in a culture:
1. Never feed them with praise.
Plato said, “What is celebrated in a country is cultivated.” Because unhealthy values are in the culture, not celebrating them requires proactive intentionality. Let me give you an example…
Pastor Lee believes and teaches that the pastor(s) in a church are given to the church to equip people for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13), but the culture in the church still expects the pastor(s) to do all the ministry, to be at every hospital, to attend every function, etc. Many pastors before Lee embraced this value and enjoyed its celebration because they were the ones being applauded. While Lee is still going to do some of the things he should not be doing, until the value of equipping replaces the unhealthy expectation, he intentionally must not draw attention to the current actions. He has to resist painting himself as the hero who is meeting every need. It is hard because the culture is eager to applaud him for living up to a current value.
2. Give their food to the healthy values.
Wise leaders seek to feed the healthy values and starve the unhealthy ones. Instead of telling stories that reinforce an unhealthy value, wise leaders tell a different story. Instead of celebrating volunteers who display an unhealthy value, wise leaders recognize different volunteers. Back to the example of Pastor Lee…
When discussing with a group of leaders that a family has been shepherded well through a difficult time, instead of subtly mentioning how he was with the family late one night, Lee highlights the fact that the couple’s small group leader has been continually encouraging the family. He tells a true story, a better story, and one that reinforces the healthy value that all of God’s people can minister.
3. Discover and affirm healthy values.
Unless an organizational culture is completely unhealthy and utterly ruinous, there are affirmable values, values that leaders want to see driven even more deeply into the culture. Wise leaders find the healthy values in the culture and continually affirm them. By doing so, people realize the leader really wants to be here, loves the people, and is committed to them. If leaders don’t affirm the affirmable, people quickly realize the leader is divorced from the reality of the context and is really leading something he/she has only imagined.
In every culture there are likely unhealthy beliefs and values lurking beneath the surface that cause people to act in all sorts of unhelpful or even harmful ways. These values must be continually starved so the healthy ones can thrive.