What You Permit, You Allow

Without execution and hard work, a company culture can be no better than that of a company who’s doing nothing to define one. 

What you permit, you allow.  Huh?  I have no idea about the origin of this phrase, but I vividly recall hearing it the first time in the late ‘70’s on a Kansas album of all things.  Don’t judge. I have broad musical tastes and truly have grown to appreciate their song “Closet Chronicles” that contains these lyrics.  It’s a moving song about the dark and sad decline at the end of Howard Hughes life.  But, I’ll digress… Kinda.

Over the years, this lyric really stuck with me, and I’ve been prone to referring to it in any number of situations. While we may each interpret it in different ways, to me it challenges us to think about what we believe and how that aligns, or not with the behaviors we engage in or the behaviors we are willing to endure. 

There are an untold number of paths we could take with this concept, and it is very much worth personal reflection in other aspects of our lives.  But let’s explore culture, specifically culture in the business world as it has become a passion of mine as I get to observe and discuss it with so many amazing people and businesses.

Before we dive in, I also challenge us to think of culture as something a little more than what may have initially popped in your mind.

  • Culture lives at the corporate level and with every individual in a company, regardless of size
  • Every company and person have a cultural alignment whether they are intentional about it or not

Most are likely familiar with the concept of a corporate culture wherein the owners/leaders define a set of core values, share a set of target behaviors that align with bringing those beliefs alive, and work to create an environment where those values can thrive.  It’s amazing on many levels when this happens as it guides so many aspects of how a business shows up for employees, customers, and the community. I’ve experienced it first-hand and can attest to how great it feels to be a part of a powerful culture and to even see the positive impact on business results.

Unfortunately, strong values and desire aren’t always enough.  Without a great deal of execution and very hard work, a company culture can be no better than that of a company who’s doing nothing to define one.  Think of that for a moment.  Without intention and execution, one can see the same cultural outcome from pouring heart and soul into a culture as they can by doing nothing.

As hard as it is to develop and define a desired culture and build the infrastructure to support it, it is even harder to bring it to life and sustain it because…yep, what we permit, we allow.  Even with the most robust body of work and the most noble intent, if a firm allows misaligned behaviors to persist with any meaningful breadth, the desire culture not only has little chance of success, but they risk the misaligned behavior actually becoming the actual culture.  

Remember that every business has a culture whether they plan for it or not.  Add to that the notion that where a culture really comes to life, regardless of overarching messaging, is in how the employees behave, treat each other and customers, and are permitted to do so.  Despite the best intentions from a leader(s) in defining a culture it can be all for not, or at least less effective, if misaligned behaviors are allowed to persist…or worse, unintentionally celebrated.  

But, what is misaligned behavior?  It most certainly can be clearly toxic actions or someone working actively against the cultural norms being pursued by a company.  It could be less obvious and show up as passive aggressive actions, back room bullying, silently not supporting messages, or that an employee simply has a different belief structure and doesn’t internally support what they are being asked to do.  Keeping our theme alive… or forcing it for the sake of one of my favorite songs…you can see if any of these are allowed to spread and persist, to be permitted, then there is no mistaking that they are allowed.  Other employees do see this and take note.  And, if they are allowed to exist counter to a desired culture, they can become the culture itself.

All of this begs the question of how to address this seemingly very complex combination of culture definition, execution, personal clarity, and trying to bring all of that together in a way in which all (or most) can experience the best chance for success.  In all transparency, despite how easy looks on paper, it’s actually hard.  That’s what makes a special culture a special culture.

All that said there are things we can and really should do to give a desired culture the best chance for success.  

As an individual…

  • Spend very real time exploring your own belief structure and understand what truly motivates you
  • Write them down, talk about them with a friend/mentor/accountability partner
  • Chat about them with your leader at work – at least those that influence job satisfaction
  • Explore how you are aligned with the company and any impact on your performance
  • Rince and repeat as we all go through changes over time
  • Be willing to embrace the idea of change of necessary
  • Remember that what you permit, you allow

As a company

  • Be transparent with your team and share the culture and values you see as part of the company
  • Share the “why” behind the culture you are looking to build, how it aligns with brand and business goals as well as how it will enable employees the best chance for success
  • Add culture behaviors to job descriptions and/or performance expectations to align with transparency and create accountability for individuals and other leaders to uphold
  • Offer coaching and mentoring to employees that align with cultural goals
  • Invest in tools and an environment that will facilitate the envisioned culture
  • Address misaligned behavior with fairness, but intention, and be willing to separate from employees, vendors, and customers that do not support the culture
  • Remember that what you permit, you allow

All of this can seem like a lot. And, in reality, it is.  But, given the importance of a clear vision of culture as well as a clear set of defined behaviors to bring your culture to life, it is truly worth the effort.  Great culture takes work but will pay off in so many powerful ways when you consider how much goes in to attracting and retaining excellent employees and customers.  Model the behaviors you desire and remember that what you permit, you allow.

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