Workplace Culture

When Leaders Mean It

By Stephen Paskoff

Sep. 25, 2013

How do you know when an organization is really committed to a culture change initiative?

I believe the lodestar boils down to this: whether it’s being led by or simply given token support by senior leaders. There’s no great wisdom in this observation. The real question is, “How do you know that the commitment is really present and not just lip service?” As it’s long been said, talk is cheap and often in plentiful supply.

The following example illustrates the seriousness of purpose and commitment that signals potential for long-term success.

A while back I met a senior leadership team of educators, all of whom are passionately committed to their institution and its mission. Their goal is to build an inclusive, welcoming culture that engages people of all backgrounds and differences.

They want an environment where leaders and colleagues are included in workaday discussions and where team members can raise and discuss critical issues. At times these issues can be personal and painful, so this environment should be free of fear from ostracism, retaliation, or professional rejection. They understand that creating this type of culture will lead to the best outcomes and will help avoid disasters lurking along the way.

Through the years, I’ve seen some organizational leaders signal their commitment by requiring others to change, i.e., they approve policies, statements, training, and communication initiatives. And though they don’t say it directly, they exempt themselves from the process. Not this organization.

This small team is starting the process by working on themselves. And that’s unusual. These leaders are the first to experience the initiatives. They made the commitment to take personal and ongoing actions before trying to reach others in their organization.

They pledged to discuss how to communicate in their own words their commitment to inclusion, civility, and professionalism and how to bring up this commitment during routine interactions with their teams. Each team member has developed a personal message, journals his or her interactions, and marks the impact the communications have on his/her team.

In their own senior groups, they’ve started to discuss how this is affecting their teams. This goes way beyond what you often see, which is a one-time promise to raise a topic annually as part of a PR, HR, or some other group’s action plan. Often this results in a leader reading a canned statement, which is quickly recognized as such and dismissed accordingly.  

Additionally, this group has been honest by acknowledging that they need to work on their own communication skills, considering how to include individuals who are different than themselves, and to listen to feedback regarding their own interactions. Often subtle comments, sometimes innocent ones, can damage collegiality and lead to superficial cooperation which, over time, builds distrust and cynicism.

The only way this type of false teamwork can be changed is for individuals to speak up and raise tough subjects, rather than avoid them. This is hard to accomplish and will only occur when leaders have the courage to “welcome” bad news or what may be criticism. These issues need to be raised in a professional and nonthreatening way, and everyone should assume good will toward both the individual raising the issue as well as toward the individual who is the subject of the concern.

These leaders also have agreed to speak up regularly. And, they’ve even developed some words of “course correction” when they want to point out a problem with what others in their group may have said, how they may have acted, and the impact their conduct may have had on individuals and the team. They are also keeping notes on how they do this and the impact it has on their interactions. Time will tell how enduring these actions prove, but the fact that they were initiated and that they have energized their team, as I recently learned, is a positive sign.

It’s easy for leaders to say through their actions, “Do as I say and not as I do.” It’s a shorter, more powerful and lastingly effective communication to say through ongoing conduct: “Do as I do.” It’s only when those in charge take the first steps through their own daily conduct — which can be challenging, risky, and even personally painful — that we know our leaders mean it.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces.

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