A greater honor

A golfer loses the U.S. Open after assessing himself a one-stroke penalty.

A runner loses a cross-country race on purpose after noticing that the leader had mistakenly stopped before the finish line.

A lacrosse team withdraws from a tournament to make room for a more deserving team.

In countless examples, not just in sports but in life, people forgo an honor to preserve a greater one.

Want a good culture? Ease up on the scary stories.

In a recent piece, Andre Pinto reminds us that “exposure to other people’s dishonesty might lead us to be dishonest as well.”

Pinto points out that our moral compass is not fixed and can be swayed by how things are done around us. It can be swayed either way, so that other people’s honesty can also lead us to be more honest. The same goes with trust, respect or integrity.

This highlights the danger of sharing a disproportionate number of real cases of wrongdoing within a company, a practice that many ethics and compliance programs have adopted. By sharing bad examples on a weekly or monthly or even quarterly basis, we risk normalizing the behavior and increasing its frequency.

I have written before about the benefits of recognition. My take has usually been that when we “recognize” one person for their good behavior, what we actually do is help everyone else recognize the behavior we want to see. Well, social science tells us that if they see it often enough, they might start adopting it. Thus, we ought to favor positive examples over negative ones.

What we do around here

Culture is how things are really done around here.

And how things are done is often the result of a story. For example, the story of the employee who got yelled at for holding a shipment after he feared that the product inside was defective. Now, no one holds a shipment around here.

Which is why recognizing good behavior is so important. People doing the right thing must be celebrated. Their stories must be told so that everyone knows what we do around here.

HT to Seth Godin

Accepted violations become acceptable

I read the following quote in an article this morning:

“Employees will do what they witness routinely: what is common is moral.”

This pithy sentence explains why we should not tolerate inappropriate jokes, unwanted “light touching”, padded receipts, taking short breaks without clocking out, etc. When accepted, they become acceptable. Once normal, they open the door to more serious violations. It’s a downward spiral to the next scandal.

It also reinforces the importance of recognizing good behavior. Not for the sake of the one person who did the right thing but for the sake of the organization, so that everyone recognizes what good behavior we want to witness routinely.

A community produces most what it honors most

This is a quote from an article on DaVita’s corporate culture.

DaVita seeks to intentionally build its culture. To do so, it focuses on 7 activities that any company can adopt. One of them is revere, i.e. honoring teammates who live by the company values.

I’ve said it many time before but it’s worth repeating for those who don’t believe in rewarding people for doing what they are supposed to do. When you recognize someone for good behavior, what you are truly doing is helping everyone else recognize the behavior you want them to adopt. It may look like the spotlight is on one person  but the focus is really on the audience.

I have two daughters who share a bedroom. When they were younger, all I needed to do was praise one for how neatly her bed was made to ensure that the other would make hers just as neatly.

Honoring ethical behavior in an organization is a key driver of an ethical culture.

Good example of bad

When we recognize someone for ethical behavior, our real goal is to show everyone else a good example of the behavior we expect.

We must do the same for unethical behavior. We must tell the story of the one who broke our trust and had to be let go. We can anonymize the story and tell it respectfully, but everyone else needs to see a good example of the behavior we won’t tolerate.

Employee recognition: keep it simple

Let’s say you are a leader who wants to recognize and share an ethical choice made by one of your employees.

One of your options is to make a high-quality video reenactment of the story, complete with testimonies and b-rolls and dramatic music. As you think about the time and money this will require, you have second thoughts. You delay action and, eventually, it doesn’t get done.

Another option is to use a phone to record a short video of you thanking the employee for what she has done. Recording and posting it takes a few minutes, it’s free, and it feels real.

Keep it simple so you can do more of it.

Hi! I’m calling to thank you!

I have 5 meetings scheduled for today.

It may seem like a lot but 4 of them are calls that won’t exceed 15 minutes.

The first and fourth calls are with new ethics & compliance officers on my team. One from Thailand (at 6:30 AM my time, about 20 minutes from posting this) and one from the US. There are 3 levels of management between these two colleagues and me, but I want them to know they can also count on me for support.

The second and third calls are with ECOs celebrating their 1st (Canada) and 7th (Italy) anniversary with our group. They are as enthusiastic about their job today as they were the day they started, and I want to recognize that.

There are 500 ECOs in my company. I try to connect with everyone at least once per year by phone or in person. Not easy. But oh so worth it. I get to hear what it’s like to join our group, to be on the front lines of ethics & compliance, to operate far from the mothership, to implement a program based on values that may be different from the local culture.

This is the team that brings to life the dreams we dream of at the corporate office.

I want them to know I am grateful.


How do you make a behavior a habit? By celebrating the behavior.

“Celebrate” is Step 6 in Andi Simon’s new book On the Brink, a book she wrote to help organizations change their culture.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? We grew up with celebrations like these when we took our first steps and our parents cheered, or when we came home with a great report card and it ended up on the fridge.

As adults in the workplace, we seem to celebrate a lot less. Somewhere along the way, we learned to focus more on the gaps to bridge than on the progress made. We also tend to believe that good behavior is simply expected and not worthy of recognition. But this view of recognition is too narrow. I’ve often said that when we recognize an employee in front of her peers for doing the right thing, what we are really doing when shining the spotlight on her is to make everyone else recognize the behavior we want to see in all. From that perspective, recognition and celebration are close cousins.

So go ahead! Celebrate good behavior! Not only is it fun, it can make these behaviors a habit.

After all, culture is simply an outcome of our habits.

For a summary of Simon’s book, see a great post by Thomas Fox.