Culture flows most directly from the behaviors we reward, and the behaviors we reward flow from our value systems. Not necessarily the values we speak openly and outwardly, but the behaviors we actually live by.
Values, however, is a fuzzy landscape because we may say we’re about integrity, and we may truly feel as though we are, but there may be times in which integrity looks like speaking words at a time in which it feels uncomfortable. We may feel as though the words won’t come out right, or that we’ll hurt someone, or that it will lead to conflict and all of that is scary. So the value we feel is integrity, but the value we express, in this case, is “My fear is greater than my obligation to speak the truth.” So the behavior we’re rewarding is fear.
This is what we’ve done with our criminal justice system in America, a country that now incarcerates more people than any other nation—more per capita than some of the most oppressive nations this world has seen. That is because while our values speak of truth and justice the value we live by is that there are scary people in the world who need to be locked up at any cost, even if that means that lots of innocent people get locked up as well, or mentally ill people, or people suffering from severe addiction. So the value we’re living by, as a country, is fear of people who look scary.
The behaviors we reward reflect our values and sets the foundation of our culture, whether it be the culture of a relationship, a family, a company or a community. The behaviors we reward are the foundation of culture, and foundations are not easy to build.
Building foundation requires huge machinery to pound pylons deep into the ground. It requires moving massive amounts of dirt and rock. It requires building forms and laying concrete. It means we work in the hot sun or the frigid cold. It means we give it our blood, sweat and tears because once it’s built it will stand for a thousand years and withstand hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and decay—it will stand as a beacon of what we stood for.
Building foundations is hard work. It’s the work of aligning the values we feel with the values we express. It means having the difficult conversations with humility and compassion. It means giving up clients who we do not feel in alignment with. At times it can mean letting go of relationships, friendships, employees and business partners when we’ve tried everything and have come to the realization that the relationship is not healthy for us. It means doing the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult. It’s the blood, sweat and tears of foundation building from which healthy thriving cultures flow, and healthy thriving relationships, families, businesses and communities.
The first step is merely to examine the behaviors we reward and ask ourselves; “What are the values expressed in these rewards?”