February 03, 2022

Ways to Build Culture Throughout an Organization

Dana Safa Bernardino

All In
1Huddle Podcast Episode #74

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick, co-founders of The Culture Works, as well as authors of New York Times Bestsellers, All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results, Anxiety at Work, Leading With Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results, and Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Chester and Adrian sat down with Sam and discussed the Big E’s to look for in your employees, the impact of middle managers, building culture, and the perception of remote work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Elton and Gostick shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “The way a leader acts gives everyone permission to act the same way.”
  • “If I don’t trust my manager, there’s very little chance I’m going to feel aligned to this culture.” 
  • “Transparency is coupled immediately with communication.”
  • “You get the best results when the top buys in.”
  • “Leaders to be more genuine and engaged.”


Sam: Adrian, maybe it’d be good to start, start with you out of the gate. Maybe give a little background on how you got to writing and talking about things like employee engagement and culture. 

Adrian: Yeah, we began this about 20 years ago, Sam, with our first book and the idea was around employee recognition. We were working with a lot of companies, helping build employee recognition programs. Our work then started to evolve because leaders would tell us, ‘it’s one thing to thank employees, but if the culture’s not right then nothing’s right.’ We wrote a book called All In about corporate culture and it really has expanded our work to really think about, as you talk about, positive cultures. We went into teamwork and we came back to this idea of gratitude and a book we wrote last year called Leading With Gratitude.

Most recently, we’re really excited about a book we’re putting out actually on May 4th. It’s called Anxiety at Work. And this is how you build a positive culture, where you have a lot of resilience in your people. 

Chester: Yeah, I would just add to that, Peter Drucker said a hundred years ago that it seems like culture eats strategy for breakfast and, it was true then, and it’s true now. So really all our work is under that culture umbrella. How do you engage, enable and energize your people? And of course, that led us to write more about leaders. leaders set the tone, the way a leader acts gives everyone permission to act the same way. 

What was really wonderful is we found this thread of gratitude through all that. That great culture is really appreciated, the people that worked with them for them. Certainly they had tough conversations and had to correct things that were going wrong, and yet at the same time were very encouraging and validated people. So whether it was Leading with Gratitude or our book, All In on culture that they cheer for each other, even with their anxiety book, there are eight strategies to deal with anxiety and the eighth strategy is how to use gratitude to tamp it down.

You know that you can’t be in a state of anxiety and in a state of gratitude at the same time. So if you have a choice, we always say, Hey, choose gratitude, cause that choosing anxiety is just going to make you anxious. 

Sam: That’s interesting. I’d love to hear any specifics on that point of gratitude. With so much technology, there’s probably all types of empty forms of gratitude or shallow forms of gratitude. I don’t know if I’m saying that right, but it’s almost like, sending a slack message isn’t necessarily that, you know what I’m saying from a technology perspective, has that made it tough to show true gratitude?

Chester: I don’t think so. I really think that it just depends on what you said on that slack thing. We talk about being very specific and being genuine. I think if that’s all you’re doing, yeah, I think it comes across as pretty hollow. We talk about general praise that has no impact. it’s kind of like the boss that comes in with the finger guns, Hey, great job, everybody. That becomes pretty hollow. 

I think that what technology has allowed us to do is a myriad of ways to connect. Even if you’re, even if you’re disparate, you can zoom call, you can use the slack channel, you can do a lot of things digitally. I do hope we get back soon to the in-person.

We’ve got a great story about a company we were dealing with where a woman hadn’t had a hug in six months and there’s something just nice about a hug. As long as you clear it through HR. 

Adrian: As long as you’re not English too, we don’t really hug in England. One of the things, and I think Chester is right though, is that one size does not fit all.

Some people may love the it group, they may think that my slack gratitude is awesome. Others, like Chester, want much more in-person, add that personal touch. It’s really what we’ve found with all of culture building, we’ve been studying employee engagement now for 40 years, employee engagement scores haven’t been going up, why?

Well it’s because we try to do it as this macro thing. We found out that actual engagement cannot be moved by macro ideas. It’s person by person. It’s hard. So you have to find out what motivates each person and what sort of gratitude is going to be most meaningful to the person. And yeah, it takes a little bit more work, but it really does produce the kind of returns we’re all looking for.

Sam: Where have you found the most success with your strategies inside of organizations? And I ask that because coming out of the pandemic, when there’s layoffs, usually HR, there’s a part of the HR group that goes out with X number of furloughs to frontline. And I just wonder where you’ve seen the most success. It seems like there’s so many roles emerging. There’s talent, there’s L&D, there’s now employee experience and employee engagement, specific job titles. What do you think has worked best? 

Chester: Well, I’ll jump in first. One of the things that’s interesting, Sam, sometimes people will say, ‘oh, you guys must work with some really diseased cultures though. You see them on the news, they must call you in!” No, those cultures never call us nor will they ever call us. We get called into really good cultures that want to keep improving. And I love just what you’re saying there too. There are now people where all their job is to worry about employee engagement, experience, culture, experience.

Many organizations we’re working with have cultural ambassadors. I’ve done a lot of sessions where they’ll bring in a hundred cultural ambassadors. None of them are leaders. They’re just people who have influence throughout the organization. They’re the people that are the touchstones that say, ‘Hey Sam, when you act in this way, it’s not really living our values. Let me take you aside and help you with that.’ That’s a really powerful way of inculcating culture throughout an organization. 

Adrian: Yeah. I mean, we work a lot with HR, as you might guess. I’ll tell you where you get the best results though, is when the top leader buys in. When the CEO and she or he really embraces it, it makes all the difference.

I’m on zoom just today with the CEO of a credit union in the Pacific Northwest. And as they evaluate all their leaders, he said, ‘we’ve made an evaluation on culture, our number one priority this year.’ Well, if it’s going to be the number one priority from the CEO and there’s a matrix to measure it, things get done.

So yeah, we deal with all those different departments. I tell you where we love to sit, is to be the manager’s best friend. In our books, a lot of managers buy our books because they’ve got people that work with and for them, and they’re looking for the tools to execute on the promise. So even if it doesn’t come from the CEO, you can self-educate as they can with wonderful apps and stuff that you do as you game-ify. The best place to start though, as always is the, is the top of the pyramid.

Sam: How do you evaluate culture Chester? What’s the best scorecard? I’m assuming it’s not looking at Glassdoor, because that would just drive me to happy hour, a little bit early. 

Chester: Yeah. The thing with glass doors is if you don’t put the stickers on them, you just smash into them all the time…

Adrian: Different kinds of glass doors!

Chester: Oh, thanks Adrian. Anyway, different companies will set it up in different ways. It’ll have to do with your 360 evaluation, with the people that report to you and so on. There are other matrix that are fairly easy to monitor, to turn over. Engagement scores and so on. And of course in a lot of those engagement surveys, they ask you, do you trust your immediate supervisor? Does your immediate supervisor live the values of the company, and so on. And so measuring culture isn’t as mystifying as a lot of people think. ‘How do you measure your culture?’ ‘Well, it’s just a feeling when I came in.’ That’s good too. It’s better to have rock solid data, which we’re big fans of, aren’t we, Adrian?

Adrian: Yeah. And we do surveys for organizations there. With our company, The Culture Works, we do surveys for organizations of their culture. And so we look at things like, if people feel aligned to the culture, they understand what we’re trying to accomplish here. But three Big E’s that we look for are our employees engaged, which everybody looks for.

Another though, we found as an accelerator of engagement, is, are they enabled? Do they feel not only empowered, but supported? And are they energized? Do they have the energy to keep going in this crisis and crazy times? So really we look for some sort of themes within cultures, just as exactly right. It all ties back to trust. If I don’t trust my manager, there’s very little chance I’m going to feel engaged, enabled, and energized or feel aligned to this culture. 

Sam: I’m sure you’ve read or seen the It’s The Manager studies from Gallup that came out pre-pandemic. You mentioned employee engagement earlier, Adrian, and it talks about global engagement numbers. Like 15% I think was the number, the US was in the low thirties. But one of the recommendations is the concept of a manager that’s coaching forward or a coaching enabled manager. And I’d love to get your perspective on this because you just talked about being the manager’s best friend, and it’s almost like that middle manager in the workforce today is more important than ever.

They’re closer to the buying experience, the customer experience, employee experience. How do you think about that? I mean, is that on the right track for companies? So much of the investment has always been at the very, very top of the HR, part of the org. Where can you get better at being middle out?

Adrian: Yeah, it’s such a good, insightful point you’re making, Sam, because yeah, when we see organizations, they typically spend thousands and thousands of dollars developing their senior leaders during the year and several hundred dollars developing the middle managers, but who has the biggest impact on my work experiences? My immediate supervisor.

As you said, Gallup has studied this extensively saying, most of my experience, most of my engagement, et cetera will come from my middle manager. So where are we putting the tools in place to really help train the most misaligned, misunderstood, and unappreciated group of people, which is our middle managers. Right, Ches?

Chester: Yeah. And that has been a drumbeat for some time now. The most impact on my personal engagement is going to be my immediate supervisor. And I do not disagree with that. I think we need to change the conversation a little bit though, and put some onus on the employee as well.

I mean, you should be responsible for your personal engagement. It’s so easy. The only thing I worry about the Gallup study is it kind of gives us all permission to say, ‘not my fault, I got a crappy manager. He was crappy when I got here and he’s still crappy after I’m leaving.’ This idea that yes, you’ve got to work with your manager, you got to build trust. There’s also an onus on us to own our own engagement and to find meaning in our work and to make it work as well. 

And I think if you’ve got both parties working hard, the manager and supervisor that’s using all those tools and self-educating, or getting the training as well as empowering your employees to say, ‘look, you can’t just show up and say, engage me. You’ve got to take some personal responsibility there as well.’

Sam: I’m a football guy, so I love to put words on walls. Mission, vision, core values, standards. What do you believe in, how we’re going to do it, everybody’s got to memorize it. I worked for a company called Lifetime Fitness and I still hate the fact that I can’t forget the mission statement. They just drilled it into me. I could rattle it. I’m not going to do it, but I can never forget it. 

I’m interested in it because, as we double-click on culture, are there any values or standards that you think are more important today? If I’m a C-level leader or startup, and I’m saying, ‘I want to define my culture and I gotta put it on paper and I’m sitting in a Starbucks by myself right now,’ what type of advice do you have?

Chester: I would say, look, transparency is a huge word right now, and transparency is coupled immediately with communication. You’ve got to be more transparent. You’ve gotta be more communicative than ever. People are filling in these communication voids with all kinds of negativity. And along with that is, and this is a tough one for a lot of leaders, is vulnerability and the ability to empathize. We’re asking leaders to be a lot more genuine in work and engage. Those are the words that I would write down. 

I’d say, ‘are we communicating enough? Are we transparent enough? Are we vulnerable? Are we empathetic?’ And then the last one, and we always come back to it, ‘do our people feel valued and engaged? Do we express gratitude to them for their work and all their sacrifices on a regular basis?’ So that’s kind of my big five. Adrian always has more so I’ll pass it to him.

Adrian: I don’t think I would add any specific words because one of the problems is that sometimes we will have these and what we say is, ‘look, we help organizations develop their values, and they can’t be aspirational.’ So what you can’t do is launch, ‘Hey, our values are integrity and transparency’ and people kind of go, ‘we are the least transparent organization on the planet.’ Yeah, but it’s aspirational.

They have to be things we actually live. And so I think just as exactly right, those are things that organizations and Sam, you know in your work, those are things organizations should be doing in their cultures. But if you’re not doing them right now, take a step, make sure your vision and your values, especially, are things that are attainable and they’re realistic in the culture.

Otherwise they’ll become motherhood and apple pie. People make fun of them. They won’t live them. They really do have to be things that are embodied within who we really are at our core. 

Sam: That’s a powerful point. I haven’t thought about it that way, starting from where you are versus reading a John Wooden book and saying, ‘okay, I like this piece of the pyramid. I like this one and I’m gonna start from it.’ 

Chester: Yeah. Sam, the reason I think that really works resonates is you’re a football guy,  we’re hockey guys. 

Sam: Okay. I get it, we can use Gretzky quotes.

Chester: That’s right. I always joke with my friends that particularly the baseball fans, I’m a fan of all sports, but I’m a diehard baseball fan. I’m a diehard basketball fan. But if a fight breaks out, you want to have a hockey player on your side. There’s no doubt. 

Sam: Totally. We adjust, getting into this new quarter, even our team here, we’re using the LA Kings story. We kicked off our quarter telling the LA King story from a few years back, the eighth seed that figured out a way to stay together and kind of keep it together in playoff mode.

I’m gonna throw this right out into the middle. And one of my final questions is remote work good?

Adrian: I’d love to jump in on this. I think one of the silver linings of this pandemic is that many people have found out, it actually can work. Some people love to have teamwork and love to have camaraderie, but, I wrote a piece on this for Forbes not too long ago, where surveys are showing most people want to have some degree of flexibility now as they may be coming back to work. In fact, the majority say I’d love to come in maybe three days and work two or two incoming, et cetera. 

But the only group that doesn’t want to work remotely were the 20 year olds. A vast majority said ‘no, no, no. I want to come in. I’m early in my career. I want more coaching. I want more direction,’ which was really interesting for us. So again, it comes back to what we talked about earlier. Sometimes not one size doesn’t fit all. But what we have learned from this pandemic is we can make it work.

Remote work can be a really powerful way to give people not only a little bit more flexibility, but we still get a lot done. 

Chester: Yeah. I would just jump in and say, look, it went on for over a year, so it was proof of concept. It actually did work. It wasn’t a pandemic in the last three weeks and everybody goes, wow, that sort of worked. I mean, after a year it worked, you can make it work. I would just say, to use a football analogy, although I’m a hockey guy, is that, know your players. 

I think the answer to that is, it just depends. Who are you? Like Adrian said, we’ve found a trend in younger workers. They want to be together. IT guys, if they never saw another breathing human person ever, they would think that’s the greatest gift ever. So you’ve got to find that balance. 

What I love about remote work right now is it has expanded people’s views of what does the team look like? You can actually have a team member, in Houston, in Hong Kong, in Singapore, in India, in New York, and you can bring them together, figure out the time zones, obviously. It expands your idea of, what does the team look like? That we may have a group that meets in New York and that’s awesome. We can also beam guys in from all over the place. 

And yeah, I’m one of those guys that says, yeah, I kind of want to shake hands and slap people on the back and so on. So for me, that’d be great. Now I will tell you, as social as I am, the pandemic has made me a fan of having a regular schedule being at home and being able to eat dinner with my family, engage with my grandkids more often. So it’s really going to be interesting, the future of work and, and what I would just say to everybody that’s listening, know your players. Know who wants to come in, know who will never come in and know those people that need a hybrid. The combination of all of those, I think, is going to make for a really dynamic and interesting workplace. 

Sam: Gentlemen, final question for you. We’re asking everybody with future work being kind of the main topic, what is your hope? And we’ll maybe start with Adrian. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Adrian: You know what I really do hope, and this, this ties back to our new book, Anxiety and Work, is that managers develop more empathy. One thing we have seen from this pandemic is no matter whether you’re working remotely, you’re going in, you’re worried about getting sick, but anxiety is a real thing and it’s hitting everybody.

And what we need to do is really focus on developing greater empathy, to remove the stigma of talking around mental health in the workplace, to really be more supportive and to create what Chester and I are calling emotionally safe cultures. That can be really powerful. That’s what I really hope we see in the future of work.

Chester: Yeah. I mean, I would just say amen to everything Adrian said. A really safe place to work emotionally more than anything. And I think what we’re going to see in the future of work is much more purpose-driven work. I think it’s being demanded of employees that it’s not just what we do and how we do it. It’s why we do it and what impact does it have on our communities? I think one of the great gifts of new generations is they make us think differently. And the generations that are coming up are saying, ‘look, the environment’s important to me. Purpose is important. Taking care of each other is important.’ So that purpose-driven work, where it’s emotionally safe to talk about those kinds of things, to me, that’s my hope for the future of work. Absolutely. 

Sam: Adrian, Chester, thank you for making time.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Culture, Management, Gratitude, Remote Work, Empathy

Dana Safa Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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