Six Pillars of an Identity Culture

Identity Culture

A culture has been defined as the set of predominating attitudes and behaviors that characterize a group or organization. When it comes to creating a culture, it really doesn’t take much. There is only one thing you have to do in order to create a culture in any group you are part of. That one thing is…nothing!

I say this because wherever there is at least one person, there is a culture. I understand that the definition stated earlier mentioned “a group or organization”, but groups and organizations are made up of individual people. These are people with their own identities, tendencies, expectations, preferences, and beliefs.

Even if the group professes to have the same beliefs in such areas as political, religious, or societal convictions, you can be sure that for every person involved there is a different belief in how those convictions should be carried out as a group.

With this said, there will always be a culture of some sort. The question is, what kind of culture do you want to have? If you do nothing, as I mentioned earlier, it will be a culture of every man or woman doing what is right to them.

But, if somehow you can establish a culture that is embraced and enforced by the group, then there is great potential for doing bigger and better things. As the old African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But, if you want to go far, go together”. This is what an established and healthy culture can do!

Below, are six pillars on which a healthy identity culture can be built. This identity culture can be in a multibillion dollar corporation, a military unit, a church, a family or any other group of people. These pillars are not just things like Hard Work, Responsibility, Trust, Integrity, and other important things such as these. The six pillars I’ll discuss deal more with the identity of the group rather than the conduct of the group. I believe that when those in the group know who they are as a group, it will guide the conduct accordingly. Let’s look at these Six Pillars of an Identity Culture!

“This is Who We Are”

The first few pillars of identity culture will probably take the longest to explain because it is from them that all the other pillars are established. The cultural identity pillar of “This is who we are” can be a bit difficult to establish at first. I say this because in order to establish the answer, you have to become focused on one identity out of the many options available. In addition to this task, you must also stay vigilant not to begin to take on more than one identity.

In psychology, there is a condition called Dissociative Identity Disorder in which the person believes they have two or more identities operating within the same body. It is called a “disorder” for a reason. If an organization or group is not laser-focused on who they are as a group, this same fragmentation will occur, and bring the same kind or disorder into their ranks. This often occurs when a group starts trying to accommodate too many preferences or expand into too many arenas. This often leads to mixed messages about what the identity of the group really is and what the group really stands for.

In order to prevent this dissociative identity disorder from occurring in a group, those within the group must also be able to say, “That is NOT who we are”. Incidentally, this phrase should be said more often. This is because, while the group is striving for one “big picture” identity, there are so many available identities with which to get sidetracked.

The culture becomes unhealthy when those within it are not willing to say, “That is NOT who we are”. This phrase will by nature weed some people out of the group who choose not to abide by the cultural identity. But, this is all part of a healthy identity culture. In order for the culture to remain healthy, and for the cultural identity to remain clear, only those who have embraced that cultural identity should remain in it.

“This is What We Do”

Now that we’ve established the cultural identity pillar of who the group is, let’s move on to what the group does. This one may seem easy to establish, but it takes a little more effort than one may realize.

A car dealership may say, “We sell cars”, a military unit may say, “We fight wars”, and your organization or group may have something specific that it does as well. But, what does the group do in order to get to do what it does? Certainly a car dealer doesn’t just walk outside and start selling cars and a military unit doesn’t just show up somewhere and just start fighting wars, and neither does the group that we are in just do what it does. There are other things that go into the process in order to get to do what we do.

The car dealer must ensure that their dealership has a good reputation in the community. They must also ensure that the salespeople treat customers in such a way that they would not only want to return, but also tell their friends about that dealership.

A military unit must ensure that their war fighters are healthy, well trained, have the proper equipment, and have the proper intelligence on the war in which they are about to engage.

Similar to the previous pillar, the organization or group must also be able to say, “That is NOT what we do”, and they must communicate that phrase as frequently as necessary. If this phrase is not communicated clearly, specifically, and regularly, it leaves an opportunity for things to creep in that contradict what that group says it believes.

Another reason to use the phrase, “That is NOT what we do”, is that there will be so many opportunities to get sidetracked and start to take on different tasks that detract from the group’s original goal.

You wouldn’t expect a retail clothing store to start focusing their operations on ensuring that stray animals receive proper veterinary care, but…if that retail store isn’t focused on “This is what we do”, and if they aren’t regularly saying, “That is NOT what we do”, they could easily get sidetracked and start doing something that isn’t within the field of their original focus. This can happen to any group, whether large or small.

“This is What we Expect”

The remaining pillars should take less time to describe as they deal more with the culture of what the group does based upon who it is.

The pillar of “This is what we expect” can cover a whole range of behaviors, such as “we expect you to be on time”, “we expect your reports to be submitted as outlined in our policy”, “we expect you to treat our customers and associates with dignity and respect”, and any other expectations that further identify your group’s culture.

These expectations shouldn’t be used to create a sense of oppression, but they should be adhered to kindly but firmly so as to create a sense of continuity and consistency throughout the organization or group. Of course, who the group is and what the group does will have significant bearing on what the groups expects. As long as these expectations are clearly made known and are upheld consistently, it will further solidify the identity of the group’s culture.

The concept of expectation can seem scary to some people because it carries with it the concept of enforcing accountability. The more that accountability is enforced the more it reinforces within the culture that, “This is what we expect because that is who we are”. Do you see how these pillars build upon each other?

“This is What We Tolerate”

Creating a healthy culture, and especially identifying the cultural identity, of your organization or group takes a lot of diligent and focused work. In order for the culture to be healthy, there must be some things that are tolerated.

This is because you are ultimately dealing with individuals in the group, and not just one large group. The question is “what do we tolerate and for how long?”. There isn’t always a black and white answer to these questions, but being able to establish the previous pillars (This is who we are, this is what we do, and this is what we expect) can certainly offer guidance.

It has been said in so many words that whatever you tolerate today becomes the culture tomorrow. I would also add that whatever you tolerate today becomes the perceived beliefs of your organization or group, even if it is actually the total opposite of what your group professes to believe.

If your group promotes personal and leadership development, there must be allowance for people to figure out what that means for them given their personality types, temperaments, skillsets, expectations, etc.

If your group promotes the wellbeing of its employees and their families, then there must be tolerance for the lost income due to those employees taking time to be with their families. These are just a few examples of things that must be tolerated in order to stay consistent with the group’s message and culture. There is also a time where you say, “We will tolerate this…for now”.

In order to keep this pillar intact,  we must also be able to say, “That is NOT tolerated here”. While there could be a long list of things made that are not tolerated, it really isn’t necessary. Once the identity of the culture is established, it will provide great insights into exactly what is not tolerated. Building upon the previous pillars, it will sound something like this: “That is NOT tolerated here because that is NOT what we do and it is NOT who we are”.

Enforcing this includes things like having difficult conversations, addressing sensitive issues, making the difficult decisions, etc. The trick here is to be consistent in upholding the standard of what is not tolerated because, once you let something slide that goes against the group’s culture, it gets easier and easier to let other things slide. Remember the phrase from earlier? Whatever you tolerate today, becomes the culture (and perceived beliefs) tomorrow.

“This is What We Punish”

This one is self-explanatory, so we won’t spend too much time on it. When we say “punish” we simply mean what actions receive disciplinary action. These disciplinary actions may be something as simple as a verbal warning, a written warning, a demerit, a full disciplinary write-up, all the way up to include termination of employment and/or separation from the group.

What an organization or group punishes says a lot about how serious that group is about its cultural development. This is because punishment tends to bring the displeasure of the one being punished, even if they are knowingly wrong.

Where an unhealthy culture tends to avoid any form of punishment, if a group is willing to enact consequences for breaking the tenets of its culture, then it is indeed a healthy culture. Again, the identity of the culture will guide what kinds of punishments are enacted against behaviors that diverge from the culture’s identity.

“This is What We Reward”

Let’s go out on a positive note, shall we? I mentioned earlier that what an organization or group punishes says a lot about how serious it is about its cultural development. The same holds true for what an organization or group rewards and how it rewards those things.

It is no secret that people are emotional beings, to some extent or another. This being the case, praise is often the most invigorating reward someone can receive, even if it’s not that often. You often find that those who give the least praise also cannot receive it very well either. There is certainly a correlation there, but that’s for a different topic. They would rather minimize it than see it work its momentum-creating magic!

When a group has shown what it rewards, it also shows what it really believes. If a sales organization rewards the highest grossing salesperson with no regard as to how those sales were made, it shows that money is its cultural focus. If the same person keeps getting the reward, while others’ achievements are constantly ignored, the culture is based on suspicion and who likes whom.

But, if the group rewards high sales coupled with other integrity-based factors such as highest customer satisfaction, most repeat customers, etc. then it shows that the culture is about serving others rather than serving itself. This means the people within that culture believe that too.

Just like before, the culture’s identity will guide how it rewards certain behaviors. Some groups use financial rewards, others give medals and trophies, while others simply give favorable mentions of the person’s achievements. This is especially effective if those achievements were in keeping with the overall cultural identity of the group.

Rewards don’t have to be given out all the time to have value. But, they have been proven to be a great asset to any culture. What gets rewarded gets replicated!

Let us always remember the anonymous quote that says, “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected”, and isn’t that the kind of culture we all want to be part of anyway?

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If you have experience with building an identity culture, I’d love to hear about it. Please comment below.

Published by Jason Fulmer

Jason Fulmer is a Personal & Professional development teacher. His life's goal is to lead men and women to THEIR next level of living and leading through Education and Example!

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