Why positive company culture starts with leadership

Nora Huovila
CEO & Co-founder, Videoly
“A company’s culture is the behavior tolerated under stress” – these words from Finnish thinker Jari Sarasvuo are the best definition of company culture I’ve ever come across. Why? Well, they encompass several vital aspects of company culture that are both meaningful and (occasionally) overlooked.

Why? Well, they encompass several vital aspects of company culture that are both meaningful and (occasionally) overlooked.

A company's culture is the behavior tolerated under stress.

Culture is not merely words on a PowerPoint slide or empty slogans. It's the behavior that takes place in – and embodies – an organization.

Company culture is always the responsibility of the leaders. They not only lead by example; they are also responsible for intervening when culturally unaligned behavior takes place. Failure to do so sets a behavioral norm inside the workplace.

Under stress
It's easy to stay inside one's comfort zone when things go smoothly; but it's when things don't go as planned and stress appears that a culture's true colors manifest.

Why there's a world of difference between words and actions

For these reasons, the most culturally influential figures in an organization are the leaders. The people who are responsible for the business set the example for others by their conduct. They are also the ones who are required to take action when behavior that is not aligned with the culture takes place. And it's the CEO who carries the ultimate responsibility for the company's culture by exemplifying and thereby influencing team leaders' behavior.

The culture within an organization is ultimately a depiction of its leaders' core values. Not the ones written on slides but the ones actualized in day-to-day behavior.

Why do leaders' actions matter the most?

Psychological hierarchies exist even in modern, flat organizations. The need to be accepted by the person who "feeds" you is deeply embedded in human nature. For young children this is an important survival strategy to avoid abandonment by their caretakers. For adults, it's typically work that allows us to pay our bills and feed our families. So the psychological issue of what those we work alongside – especially those in positions of power – think about us becomes crucial. Are they happy with what we've been doing? Do we feel safe here?

Of course we are not as dependent on our jobs as we were on our parents. But the essential structure of that dynamic still subconsciously affects our behavior. And that's why the leader's role and her acceptance matter so much. We observe her actions to infer the steps we need to take to 'survive'. What do we need to do to fit in and not lose our job? What kind of behavior is praised, what kind of behavior is criticized?

Why leading from the front is vital

That's why leading by example is important – it's the only way to impact people's view on what culture and values mean in action. It's similar to raising a child. What you do matters far more than what you say. If you say taking care of yourself is important but you don't do it yourself, nobody believes it's actually important.

The leader needs to believe that acting according to these values truly is beneficial for the company. And they need to personally commit to them. The values cannot be copied from another company; to become more than just words, they must come from within. They need to be embedded in actions.

Transforming the culture starts from within

Under every value lies a belief. Building a culture and choosing your values is like selecting a winning strategy for the company. What do you believe will make the company successful in the long run? For example, we at Videoly believe the recipe for long-term success is found by putting people first and honoring the human need for acceptance and safety. This is not simply a nice set of words.

But how can this cultural shift take place? Firstly, examine how current cultural behavior in your company states fundamental beliefs about the world. Take an honest look at your findings. Is this aligned with how you see the world and the kind of life you want to live? How do you want your company to be remembered? Build your values on those findings. Commit to them. This will bring meaning to your life – and your employees' lives – no matter what business you are in.

And this transformative process has to start with the leaders.