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Build your desired culture with “do” messages

4 min read


The foundation of high-performance, values-aligned corporate culture is a set of clear expectations for performance and values. Most organizations do a better job of clarifying performance expectations than they do clarifying values (or citizenship) expectations, so opportunities abound.

Once performance and values expectations are in place, organizational leaders begin role modeling and coaching to validate desired behavior and action. They might also have to redirect undesirable behavior and action (in self, other leaders, supervisors or employees). Proactive culture management requires intentional time and focus to align every player’s plan, decision and action to your desired work environment.

It is important that leaders’ messaging is consistent, frequent and positively stated, not negatively stated. The human brain processes “do” messages more quickly and efficiently than it does “don’t” messages. A few examples highlight the importance of stating desired behavior in positive terms.

Let’s say you are riding your bike on a narrow trail. If you tell yourself, “Don’t fall!” your brain hears, “Fall.” You lose focus, desired straight-line tracking and momentum, and you fall.

Let’s say you’re playing golf with friends. You find yourself on the tee box with your driver in hand. An expansive fairway lies before you. There is a lake on the left. As you line up your shot, you say to yourself, “Don’t hit it in the lake!” Your brain hears, “Hit it in the lake.” You lose focus, and — despite your best intentions — your ball hits the lake with a splash.

“Don’t” messages are utilized quite often in the work environment. Workplace “don’t” messages include statements such as “Don’t be late” (for meetings or deadlines), “Don’t be a jerk” (don’t yell or be rude), “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver” and the like.

By stating these messages in positive terms and describing desired behavior, better alignment to that behavior occurs. By stating, “Be on time,” “Be kind” or “Be of service,” these messages become much more actionable.

One client tried to address tardiness at meetings using a “do” message. The facility includes corporate offices, research and development, and manufacturing. Vital quality checks in the manufacturing area were done at the top of the hour. Because manufacturing employees were doing quality checks, they were always late to meetings that started at the top of the hour. The company posted signs in all meeting rooms that said, “Meetings scheduled for the top of the hour must begin no later than 10 minutes after the top of the hour.” Guess what time people began arriving for meetings? Ten minutes after the top of the hour! Meetings rarely began on time.

Though well intended, this “do” message created undesired behavior: late arrivals and late meetings. A different “do” message would have been more beneficial (and would not have needed signs in meeting rooms). How’s about suggesting that meetings start at a quarter past the hour — and implement a “do” message of “Start meetings on time.”

How do we take the bike or golf “don’t” message and make it a desirable and actionable “do” message? With bike riding, pick your riding line in front of you. Tell yourself, “Stay on this line.” Your brain hears, “Stay on this line.” When trying to drive a golf ball safely onto the fairway, say to yourself, “Hit the ball in the nice, mowed fairway.” Your brain hears, “Hit it in the fairway.”

There is no guarantee other variables won’t come into play and cause you to fall off your bike or hit the ball into the lake. At least, with positively stated messages, your brain won’t sabotage your efforts right out of the gate.

Join the conversation! How do you and your company staff respond to “do” and “don’t” messages? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Music heard in the podcasts is from one of my songs, “Heartfelt,” © Chris Edmonds Music (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). I play all instruments and engineer these recordings.