Business Leadership Today

How Leaders Impact Culture


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

A well-managed organizational culture can make business strategies more successful and help the organization better serve customers. One of the main ways it does this is by supporting working conditions and systems that create a positive employee experience. 

Culture both impacts and is impacted by leaders. In fact, leaders impact culture more than any other factor, which means they impact the employee experience more than any other factor. 

Leaders help to develop, shape, and influence organizational culture over time. Their actions and behaviors are, in turn, guided and influenced by organizational culture. If an organization’s culture is toxic, its leadership will be toxic.

We know that everything a leader does helps or harms an organization’s culture, shaping it in both negative and positive ways that either build cultural buy-in or dismantle it. But how can leaders be intentional about how they develop and ingrain culture in their organizations and lead in ways that will impact the culture in positive ways?

In a recent article, Business Leadership Today contributor John Spence outlined eight factors that are essential for a winning culture:

  • Core values
  • Positive environment
  • Inclusion
  • Strong relationships
  • Trust
  • Autonomy
  • Purpose
  • Recognition

Good leaders deliver on all these factors in several highly effective ways to ensure their impact on culture is positive. 

Leaders impact culture by establishing and clarifying norms that guide employees’ behaviors, maintaining working conditions that are conducive to collaboration and high performance, encouraging accountability, and helping employees connect their work to the organization’s vision.

In this article, we’ll explore how leaders impact culture positively when they ensure they are delivering on these eight factors that contribute to a winning culture.

Establishing and Clarifying Norms That Guide Behavior by Modeling Core Values

Since organizational culture is embedded in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns, it is important to guide employees toward the behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns that you want to see more of in your organization through modeling core values.

Core values are the building blocks of a strong organizational culture. An organization’s mission and vision serve as the foundation for the core values it develops as a framework for culture. 

The key to making employees conservators of your organization’s culture is to clearly define, regularly refine, and continually reinforce core values. 

Culture should not only be developed in an authentic way, but it should be managed in an authentic way to produce long-term positive results. Leaders who effectively operationalize culture management by authentically reinforcing core values with employees see improvements at every level of the organization. 

Therefore, it is important for leaders to continually set the tone for the culture they want in their organization by demonstrating their dedication to the values the culture is built on.

When senior leadership demonstrates dedication to core values by modeling behaviors that align with these values, it guides employees toward similar behaviors. That dedication should be strong and observable by employees daily—whether in meetings, emails, or one-to-one coaching sessions, which can be particularly helpful for employees.

Through coaching, leaders support and help employees understand the why and how of an organization, which helps reinforce culture and improve core values alignment. Coaching heightens employee awareness and has a tremendous impact on employees’ sense of belonging.

Maintaining Working Conditions That Are Conducive to Collaboration and High Performance by Fostering a Positive, Inclusive Work Environment Where Relationships Flourish

Great cultures support healthy work environments, and great leaders are focused on maintaining working conditions that help employees do great work that benefits the organization without being detrimental to employees’ well-being. They do this by fostering a positive work environment, inclusion, and strong relationships. 

Positive Environment

Maintaining a positive work environment that is conducive to collaboration is crucial for team success and for preventing cultures from turning toxic. 

Toxic situations can involve harassment, microaggressions, unequal treatment of employees, or behaviors from senior management that devalue others and make them feel expendable. Toxic employees can submarine their co-workers, sabotage projects, hinder teamwork, drive top performers away, and poison culture. 

Top leadership can ensure organizational culture stays true to a company’s mission, vision, and values by addressing toxic situations as soon as they arise so they don’t impact morale or cause irreparable damage to the positive culture leaders and their teams have worked to create.

Confronting and addressing issues effectively keeps working environments harmonious and helps leaders build trust with team members, so don’t shy away from dealing with conflict when it arises.

I recently sat down with Lisa Baker, founder of Ascentim LLC, to discuss why confrontation shouldn’t be considered a negative and how it is sometimes necessary to build a winning culture: 

YouTube video


Inclusion can be defined as the extent to which employees feel accepted, respected, and valued. It can also help gauge the extent to which employees feel encouraged to fully participate in the organization.

As it turns out, inclusion is extremely important to many workers just entering the workforce. According to a recent article in Big Think, an organization’s commitment to inclusion and diversity is important to 83% of Gen Z job seekers. 

Leaders ensure their organization’s culture stays positive by supporting an inclusive work environment in which employees feel appreciated for their unique traits and skills and comfortable showing up every day as their authentic selves.

Employees who feel a sense of belonging in the organization will experience more alignment between their values and the organization’s core values.

An important, but often overlooked, aspect of culture management is regularly re-evaluating seemingly innocuous practices embedded in a company’s culture that could potentially make employees feel less welcome and negatively impact employees’ perception of the culture. 

The key is to be mindful of how the culture impacts employees, aware of aspects of it that may need to change, and intentional about how it evolves over time.

Strong Relationships

Most of us are familiar with the saying “teamwork makes the dream work,” an oft-quoted phrase from John C. Maxwell. Fewer of us may be familiar with the  actual quote from Maxwell’s book of the same name: “Teamwork makes the dream work, but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.”

It is my firm belief that “bad teams” are the result of poor leadership and that the key to making any dream work is ensuring that team members work well together. If we want to build teams that work well together to achieve great things, we have to put the necessary work into relationship building.

Our employees can’t work well together if they don’t trust each other and toxic situations and conflict are left to fester. But building strong relationships requires more than that; it requires a genuine sense of camaraderie and a harmonious work environment where team members support each other and champion each other’s achievements.

The most effective leaders constantly work at creating and maintaining strong relationships, both between leadership and employees and between employees and their co-workers. 

When employees respect each other and work well together, it provides a wide array of benefits, including better collaboration, productivity, performance, morale, engagement, retention, innovation, and creativity. 

Research has shown that developing relationships with people you aren’t close to is more effective than general team-bonding exercises. The goal is to help individuals build authentic connections.

It may seem difficult to set aside time for building strong relationships between team members, especially when they are stretched thin and workloads are heavy, but, when done correctly, relationship-building exercises can be a highly effective way of helping employees forge strong bonds, and the benefits make it worth the effort. 

And you don’t have to plan extravagant team bonding events, scavenger hunts, or escape room experiences (many employees actually dislike these kinds of team building activities and do not necessarily benefit from them anyway) to do it. Even setting aside a few minutes a day for employees to engage in in-person or virtual water cooler conversations is well worth the effort.

Encouraging Accountability Through Trust-Building and Autonomy

Leaders and their teams impact culture positively when they take ownership of their roles and take accountability for their actions. Leaders help their team members do this by building trust and giving them the tools they need to work with autonomy. 


In order to keep culture always fresh in the minds of employees, trust in leadership is a necessity.

The level of trust an employee has in their leader affects how well employees perform, how productive they are, and how profitable the organization is. If they don’t trust their leader, how can they trust the culture? 

When employees trust leadership, they trust the organization’s culture to provide a satisfying and harmonious work environment for them. Leaders who continually work on trust-building are ensuring a strong organizational culture that serves employees and is committed to their success. 

When there is a lack of trust, it can lead to toxic work environments, which will result in high retention that does further damage to organizational culture. 

To build trust requires leaders to embrace conflict and crisis, rather than punishing dissent or burying conflict.

Marissa Levin, founder and CEO of Successful Culture says, “The organizations with the highest trust recognize that asking for help is a two-way street. The most emotionally connected leaders let their employees know that they need their help to build the best organizations possible.”

Modeling core values, demonstrating care for employees, offering them flexibility and autonomy when possible, and providing regular feedback are all ways leaders can build and maintain trusting relationships with employees and build a strong culture that employees are enthusiastic about.


One of the best ways to build trust and cultural buy-in is to give employees autonomy.

Employees crave autonomy. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink lists autonomy—the desire to direct our own lives—as one of the three most important motivators, along with mastery and purpose, for employees.

Research has shown that motivated employees are more oriented towards autonomy and independence and are more self-driven than less motivated employees.

Autonomy has become increasingly important for workers in remote and hybrid work environments. One of the best aspects of autonomy is the trust-building potential it brings to an employee’s experience, even when that experience is happening in a remote setting.

Autonomy has been identified as a major factor in the job-seeking habits of workers, with 42% of millennials indicating they would choose a job that allows them to work independently on projects of their choice, signaling that autonomy will likely be an important factor in generating cultural buy-in with future employees. 

Autonomy can mean different things depending on the company, but can result in outcomes that are beneficial to employees and leadership. It meets an employee’s need to work in more self-directed ways, increases trust in leadership, improves accountability, keeps employees motivated to do their best work, and helps them stay culturally aligned.

Helping Employees Connect Their Work to the Vision Through Purpose and Recognition

One of the most important ways leaders impact culture positively is by helping employees see meaning in their work by connecting it to the organization’s higher purpose and by recognizing the impact of their work.


As with autonomy, purpose is increasingly a factor in the job search for many job seekers. 

A recent study revealed that 70% of employees would not work for an organization without a strong purpose, 60% would take a pay cut to work at a purpose-driven company, and 90% of employees who work at organizations with a strong sense of purpose say they’re more inspired, motivated, and loyal.

A shared sense of purpose unites team members, which maximizes their efforts and creates a positive work environment that is conducive to collaboration and a great employee experience for all. 

When employees feel a shared sense of purpose with their co-workers and a strong commitment to an organization’s mission, vision, and values, it improves morale, performance, trust, and overall job satisfaction. 

Leaders define and reinforce employees’ sense of purpose by tying it to the work employees do each day and the larger mission and vision of the organization. 

A strong organizational culture will provide the sense of purpose employees seek, and leaders can help employees recognize this purpose by clearly and consistently communicating the organization’s culture and values to employees and helping them recognize the connections between the work they do and the impact of that work on the lives of others. 

When leaders are able to embed culture in their organizations through purposeful work, it also reinforces culture and core values with employees in ways that generate cultural buy-in and improve values-alignment because, in many ways, purpose reflects culture and makes culture visible to employees on a daily basis.

Leaders can help team members find purpose in their work by setting expectations that are tied to the organization’s larger vision and reflective of its culture and core values. 


Recognition meets a core human need for both the employee and the manager. It also has a tremendous impact on culture, and, when it’s made a part of an organization’s culture, it has a positive impact on the employee experience.

Meeting this need is a key aspect of a strong company culture and is essential to the successful management of organizational culture because it increases job satisfaction, employee engagement and retention, and quality of work. 

Yet, many managers continue to underestimate the power of frequent recognition. 

As John Spence points out, managers won’t think twice about pointing out mistakes to employees, but are not always aware of how powerful praise can be in terms of embedding culture and sparking motivation.

Spence says, “If you make a mistake in most businesses, someone will point it out rather quickly. Yet, if you do something good, not earth-shattering, just good, rarely do people say anything.” 

In a positive culture, leaders give frequent praise that is both genuine and specific. Doing this helps employees see the impact of their work and encourages them to keep working toward the vision. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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