Culture Signals for Everyone

In large organizations, there’s not just one monolithic culture. There are many micro-cultures. Individuals at all levels can make a big difference using a pretty straightforward technique called we call Culture Signals.

Richard and Peter introduced the concept of culture signals in episode 71. But because of the examples in that episode, many people got the misconception that culture signals were only for CEOs. Not at all!

In this episode they share 7 inspirational examples of mid-level managers, team leads, and individual contributors creating effective culture signals, and they review how you can do the same in your environment.

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Episode Transcription

Peter Green

Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. In this episode, we dive deep into transforming company culture from well below the CEO position. If you are a team lead, a manager, or just an influential member of your organization, this episode is tailored just for you!

Richard Lawrence

Often, changing a company’s culture feels like a herculean task, especially if you’re not sitting at the top of the corporate ladder. Peter and I both spent years in that position, often frustrated that we couldn’t make bigger changes from where we sat in the middle of the organization. But the reality is that in large organizations, there’s not just one monolithic culture. There are many micro-cultures. So, individuals at all levels can make a big difference using a pretty straightforward technique we call Culture Signals.


We first introduced the idea of Culture Signals in episode 71. As a reminder, Culture Signals are actions that leaders take to intentionally shape their organization’s culture by making a clear trade-off between what is traditionally valued and a new value the leader wants to emphasize. Culture Signals interrupt an expected pattern of “the way things work around here.”


Effective Culture Signals involve making surprising choices that leave no room for doubt about how the leader is prioritizing the new value over old, expected norms.

A couple of inspiring examples from episode 71 include Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh celebrating 10+ hour customer service calls, emphasizing the value of personal connection with every customer over efficient call times, and former FAVI CEO Jean-Francois Zobrist removing time clocks and unlocking equipment rooms to emphasize trust in employees at the risk that some employees might take advantage of that trust.


Now, you might wonder, “This sounds great for CEOs, but what about me?” And that’s where it gets exciting. You, as a VP, a director, a team lead, or an individual contributor, can be a catalyst for change within your team or your department using Culture Signals.

In this episode, we’re going to share seven examples of Culture Signals that moved the cultural needle for a team or a group within a company. These examples were all made from well below the CEO level. And each example involves a team lead, a manager, or a middle manager sending an effective Culture Signal for their team or group.


Ok, example 1: I was managing a team in an organization that had a strong focus on tracking individual productivity, with spreadsheets for everybody’s estimates and capacity and trying to puzzle it all in, and figure out who’s going to do what and who did what and how long it took, and that introduced a lot of friction when we wanted to help each other out, and really collaboratively solve problems on an early agile team in this organization. So, when it came time to choose a tool for us to keep track of our work, I deliberately chose a tool for our team that made it impossible to calculate individual productivity. I didn’t just tell my team I wouldn’t do it. I made sure to choose a tool and really make it clear that, even if I wanted to, I can’t do it. This emphasized a new culture of team collaboration over individual productivity.


Yeah, that’s a great example. Example 2 is a situation that I’ve shared a few times before on the show, where I was leading a cross-team retrospective that had participants from individual contributors all the way up through the head of the business unit. In this retrospective, I wanted to emphasize psychological safety, so I used a technique called a Safety Check, and that technique made it clear that the individual contributors didn’t feel comfortable digging into some of the difficult issues while the head of the business unit was there. So I made the surprising choice to take a break, invite that executive to leave the meeting, and then proceed with my planned retro design. This choice emphasized a culture that was willing to call out safety issues to leadership over having, potentially, their involvement and support.


Example 3 comes from a client I was coaching some years ago. This organization, before Scrum, had the most strongly hierarchical engineering culture I had ever seen. The more senior you were, the more technical decisions you made. Junior engineers had very little decision-making authority, and often were just copying and pasting code from Word into their text editor.

When this organization adopted Scrum, they wanted to change that culture so teams would self-organize to develop technical solutions using the expertise of the whole team, not just the most senior engineer. But a lot of teams struggled to make that change.

One System Architect turned Product Owner at that company, though, came up with a great culture signal to support that change on his team. He went to a local custom hat shop and had them print two hats, one that said, “Former System Architect,” which was the senior engineer role there, and one that said, “Product Owner.”  And then, he would switch between the hats in meetings. He’d put on the Product Owner hat, and he’d say: “As the Product Owner, I’m not going to tell you how to solve this. That’s no longer my job. But (and then switch hats), I was the architect in this space for 30 years, so I’m happy to answer any questions you have as you come up with a solution (and then switch back), but it’s up to you to decide.” He kept actually both hats at his desk on the top of his computer and would make people pick one for him to put on before they asked him a question.

This emphasized a culture that values team self-organization and is willing to give up status and authority.


Example 4 is another Product Owner one.  Our good friend Hart Shafer was playing the Product Owner role on one of the first Scrum teams at Adobe. And he agreed that the collaborative process that the team had used to prioritize work prior to adopting Scrum, what we called the Feature Council, led overall to better decisions and alignment. So he reinstated the “Feature Council” approach, playing the Product Owner role.  This emphasized a culture of collaborative decision making over, potentially, speed and clarity.


And Scrum compliance, I guess.


That’s right.


That’s a nice one. Example 5 comes from my time as development lead. I had a lot of technical expertise, but we noticed that I was also becoming a bottleneck on the team and there was some hesitancy by more junior developers to fully take on accountability for some of the more difficult technical pieces. But I believed that they could do it, so our team created a working agreement that stated that I could pair with anyone, but I couldn’t own a development task– and I ended up doing a lot of pairing, I just couldn’t sign up for things first and then run them myself–and this emphasized a culture that values cross-training and individual growth over individual speed and expertise.


Hm.  Nice.

Ok, onto number 6. I was coaching a manager once when she brought up a challenge with one of her developers. Now, this developer had been in the industry for a long time and had pretty widely recognized world class skills in that domain. They had invented some of the key techniques and IP in their industry and were well known at conferences in their domain. Unfortunately, they were also dismissive of other team members, and frequently derailed team discussions, and had recently been (they discovered) redoing other people’s work without communicating to the team about it. Other team members were starting to describe to the manager that this developer was toxic– they couldn’t work with them anymore.

The manager, being a good manager, had brought these challenges up in the 1:1s with the toxic developer over the past several months, and the developer’s attitude was “Hey–if the other team members did better work, I wouldn’t have to do these things.” They were pretty much unwilling to change. During the coaching session, the manager made the very difficult decision to remove that developer from the team, emphasizing the value of being good team players over strong technical expertise. That team, by the way, began excelling within weeks of removing that toxic developer.


All right, finally example 7 comes from Buurtzorg, a Dutch home health care organization where nurses operate in highly autonomous neighborhood teams. In an interview, a nurse in one of the teams recounts a time when they had hired a new team member. But very quickly, there was a lot of friction. The new nurse was unhappy with the Buurtzorg approach, and the other team members were unhappy with her performance. The nurses brought in a coach, and they collectively agreed to let the newly hired team member stay on their payroll while they helped her find a better fit at a different company, emphasizing kindness and caring over short term productivity and profitability. That nurse, while not a good fit for Buurtzorg, was treated like a fellow human in a tough situation.


So, how can you start, if you want to use this technique? First, you can do what we did, which is to identify a situation that feels misaligned in some way with a value that is particularly important to you. Get clear on what you want to emphasize and importantly, what you’re willing to get worse at in order to emphasize it. Then find a compelling way to demonstrate this value through your actions, one that would probably surprise the people it impacts. A good Culture Signal causes people to say “Wow, they’re really serious about this thing!” Then try it out! Change doesn’t need to come from the top of the organization to be meaningful and to make a big impact. It can begin with you. You can start small, but think big, and watch the ripple effect of your Culture Signals. Then, please share your stories and your challenges with us in the comments or tag Humanizing Work in your socials, and let’s create some workplaces where everyone thrives!


Thanks for tuning in! If you found this episode insightful, don’t forget to like, subscribe, and share on YouTube or your podcast app. Together, we can make a difference, one Culture Signal at a time.

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