You’ve heard of the benefits of a strong, positive organizational culture well aligned with your business plan. Plow in hand, you’re now ready to begin the good work of cultivating your own culture, to begin reaping the benefits of happier, more productive employees. But, looking around your organizational landscape, you wonder, “Where do I even start?” The key to using this powerful aspect of your business to garner motivation and retention of internal talent, while also driving business performance, is an understanding of how to take a focused, systematic approach. After all, no fruitful garden happens overnight or without a little perspiration!

Imagine your organization as a system. All day, people are interacting – with each other and with customers – decisions are being made, behaviors can be seen and felt. What values and behaviors are being demonstrated through all of these human interactions? And which parts of your organization have influence over these, capable of causing change in the output of the whole environment? If you want something to really take hold in your organization, you have to make sure all parts of the organization – the systems, processes and practices – are working toward the same goal. All parts need to be seeking the same output, reinforcing the values you want to see living and breathing inside your organization.

Seven core components exist inside an organization capable of this type of influence:

  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Hiring
  • Rewards and Recognition
  • Organizational Structure
  • Job Design and Enablers
  • Workspace

These components are called culture levers. I liken this to gardening where you need to pay attention to the seeds you plant, the soil quality, amount of light and water provided, because they each impact your overall crop. Similarly, your workers’ behavior and motivation are influenced by these organizational culture levers. Begin by looking within. Examine how each of these levers may be working toward driving or hindering the culture you desire. Then realign them to ensure they are producing the results you seek. Moving the whole system forward is well within leadership control. 

Innovation as an Example

With the constantly shifting landscape forced by changes in technology, many business owners see the value of looking ahead and shifting to meet the demands of a changing market in order to remain relevant. This makes innovation a highly sought after value. Leaders are looking for people on their team to bring forward ideas, share new ways of thinking and to challenge the status quo. Working through these seven culture levers using the value of innovation as a tangible example, you will begin to see how you can cultivate your culture to reinforce the behaviors you desire, and ultimately the environment and results you seek.

Aligning Culture Levers for Innovative Behaviors 


The role your leaders play in reinforcing your desired culture cannot be overstated. Leaders set the tone for culture, good or bad. Evidence of this lever being aligned to drive innovative behavior would be shown by leaders who are themselves innovative. Leaders who explicitly encourage sharing ideas and who ask thoughtful questions when ideas are presented reinforce these behaviors as well. If, on the other hand, you have leaders in place who are consciously, or even unconsciously, shutting down the desired innovative behaviors, this may be evidence of a misaligned leadership lever.

To realign this lever, when new ideas are presented the best reaction from a leader is to ask, listen and learn. This ensures the possibilities are fully explored. When the first response is to voice how the idea may fail, the individual presenting will likely be discouraged. This hurts innovation. In order to promote innovation, the leadership team should be willing to support ideas and the experimentation of them, even if some fail.


Your words and actions speak volumes; everything you say and do communicates what is important to your organization. To reinforce a value such as innovation, focus on relentless messaging. Find ways in meetings, large and small, to continually build in how important innovation is. This can be as simple as sharing success stories, noting how innovation is the hero. Even discussing failures can begin to reinforce the value of innovation. As long as you frame the message in a way which highlights the importance of taking chances, looking ahead and learning.

There are tangible ways you communicate as well. Do you have a process for collecting ideas, suggestions and process improvements? Idea boards, periodic surveys, or an internal platform to host these ideas are ways to demonstrate the importance of these behaviors. To take it a step further, create a process for evaluating team, function, or companywide ideas to make sure good ideas are not lost. Even a yearly companywide competition can remind individuals how important innovation is because of the amount of energy allowed to be invested in generating new and better ways of doing things.


Right away you can begin to focus on bringing in the right ‘culture fits’ to have a big impact on cultivating your culture; after all, your culture at its core is a product of your people. The most important aspect of the hiring lever is identifying exactly what it is you’re looking for and objectively assessing your candidate against this criteria. Going through the process of defining your core organizational values and then explicitly defining behaviors associated with them allows you to properly identify what it is you’re looking for in a candidate.

Behavior-based interviews can then help you to objectively assess how your candidates stack up against what you’ve identified as important. For example, if one of the behaviors you identified is using what you learn to improve what you do, you can design a set of behavior-based interview questions to validate if the candidate has demonstrated this behavior in the past. We know that past behaviors are the best predictor of future behaviors. An example of one such question may be, “Describe a time you applied new knowledge to make something better.” Listen to how they did or did not demonstrate the behaviors you are seeking in your organization.

Rewards and Recognition

The desired behaviors you seek can be positively reinforced through formal and informal reward and recognition systems. If you hold a yearly companywide competition and the winner is well rewarded, the message you send to your whole company is that this behavior is valued. If you make it clear individuals who demonstrate the desired values are more likely to be promoted, employees seeking promotion will begin to make these behaviors a part of their agenda.

On a smaller level, you may have a traveling trophy for your team, or department, which gets passed around when someone’s good idea is implemented. It is important to track and reward the behaviors you want demonstrated. Being rewarded and recognized is one of the most explicit ways people know they are doing the right things; when people know they are doing it right they tend to keep doing it!

Organizational Structure

How many levels does your organization have? Do individuals have the autonomy to move forward with their ideas or do they have to go through several layers to get permission? To ensure this lever is working properly make sure to consider these questions, and ensure people know where to go with their ideas. 

Nothing kills ideas like having the idea go nowhere and not understand why. To ensure people feel empowered to innovate, make sure to have a solid vetting of the idea with a clear process to provide feedback to the individual. This way, even if the employee has five bad ideas, he/she still feels comfortable and motivated to give you the game-changing sixth idea. 

Job Design and Enablers

Another organizational roadblock to idea generation is when ideas are encouraged and vetted, but not given the proper time or resources to implement. This happens when jobs are designed without time allocated to implement the new ideas or think creatively. If innovation truly is a value of the organization then expectations of the behaviors should be written in the job description, and expected in performance. 

Encourage cross-functional understanding of the company so they can have a big picture view of potential best practices. Ensure they’re spending time understanding your customers’ businesses, and seeking out how the competition is operating, as well as how your industry is shifting. If this is a clear job expectation for your employees and their jobs are designed to enable them to demonstrate the desired behaviors, then this lever is aligned.


Workspace is an important, yet misunderstood, lever. Many people assume if you insert a nice breakroom equipped with a Ping-Pong table, and a potluck Friday every month your culture is bound to be great, right? Unfortunately, no. This lever is the visual manifestation of what you’re going for in your environment. What environment do you need in order to encourage innovation? I would suggest areas throughout your organization where people can step outside of their office or pods and collaborate. If you’re going for an ahead-of-the-curve feel, maybe also consider a techier modern look and feel. When you design or upgrade a workspace, think about how the presentation represents you at the core. If it doesn’t exude your definition of innovation, this may be an area to realign. 

Working Together

The key to cultivating your culture lies in understanding how to take a focused, systematic approach. Culture change is about making calculated, incremental changes to align your organization in such a way that you begin to reinforce behaviors consistent with what’s important to the success of your organization. In attempting to produce a bountiful crop, many companies forget the whole ecosystem works together. Just like in gardening, the ideal crop is delivered when you focus on all elements impacting the plants by ensuring the right seeds are planted in the right soil, with the ideal amount of sun, water and nutrients. It would not work to buy the best seeds and plant them in the right soil with the right sunlight but then forget to water them. 

Likewise, when reinforcing innovation, it doesn’t work to hire teammates who are innovative but then put them in an environment where their leader discourages ideas. Or, incentivize innovation but then make it very difficult for ideas to get through the system to implement them. Similarly, it won’t work to communicate how important innovation is but then not provide the time and resources needed to experiment, learn and evolve your business. 

These are examples of would-be jams in the system that have the adverse impact of discouraging the behavior you are so diligently trying to encourage. Looking within is about examining your organization so you can diagnose and begin to align these levers for the best possible outcome. You want to ensure at a minimum you: 

  • Have leaders who are innovative and encourage innovative thinking in others 
  • Hire people who have innovation as part of their DNA 
  • Provide a workspace that fuels innovative thinking 
  • Make innovation a job expectation and provide employees the time and resources to be innovative
  • Make it easy to get new ideas and processes through the organizational structure
  • Relentlessly communicate how important innovation is
  • Recognize and reward innovative ideas   

Just like a successful garden demands some toil of the soil and attention to the elements, cultivating a positive culture is well worth your efforts. With a little deliberate focus, you’ll build a flourishing ecosystem, allowing you to reach your personal and business goals. 


Arial Harland
Pathshare HR Services

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of The Imaging Channel.