Once in a while, someone shares a quote with me that captures an essential piece of wisdom. Today it was a line from Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

Isn’t that annoying? Don’t you wish the culture was shaped by people’s best behavior? But having observed hundreds of organizational cultures, I know the quote is true. That’s why the “No Jerks” rule many companies have adopted is so important. 

Of course, the challenge then is to define what being a “jerk” looks like. That will vary from one setting to another. But nonetheless, in any organization there have to be limits on what behavior is tolerated.

Putting the limits on bad behavior at work

I would a further requirement. The rules need to be the same for everyone. In a family business, the limits must be the same for the “heir to the throne” as they are for non-family members. In a corporation, they must apply equally to the C-suite and to the fresh-out-of-college newbies. In a performing arts organization, the brilliant star must be held to the same standards as the guys who move the scenery. Otherwise, people become very cynical about the behavioral guidelines the company has established.

It is very difficult to apply the rules equally because different people in an organization create different amounts of value. If you’re the top-billing partner in a law firm, are you expected to be as considerate as a lowly legal assistant? Is a company really going to discipline or fire their top performers because they’re obnoxious?

That depends on the kind of culture the company wants to build, and an important question: Is culture as important as individual talent? 

My experience says absolutely yes. Culture affects what talent you can attract, how well they will perform for you, how long they will stay, and ultimately, whether the company will thrive. Tolerating damaging behavior, even by a top performer, will ultimately make the organization less productive, as well as a horrible place to work.

As a leader, what is the worst behavior you are willing to tolerate? 

If you’d like to know more about developing a high-performance culture in your organization, contact us at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com 

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