What Makes a Culture Good?
By Steve Hayner

Cultures that work, and that ultimately help people accomplish a community’s mission, are ones in which people flourish. In healthy cultures, people become more of what God intended for them to be. They grow in being more like Jesus in character. And their gifts and abilities are intentionally developed, mobilized, and honored.

One of the best ways to discover what healthy cultures look and feel like is to ask people about their own experiences. Almost anyone who has thought about what helps him or her to flourish as one of God’s beloved is able to point to characteristics of the community or organization that have helped. And I would encourage every leader to make such a list.

Here are a few characteristics I deeply appreciate in a community culture.


Christ Is Central

All our labor, relationships, and institutional activities are under the lordship of Christ. This is true whether we are working within a context that is intentional about these commitments or whether we are working in a so-called secular environment. Jesus is still Lord, and kingdom principles are still operable. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to follow him in what we do and how we do it. In a healthy culture, it is clear where the ultimate foundation and final authority reside. This is demonstrated consistently:

• in how servant leadership is exercised.

• in how decisions are made with an attentiveness to biblical wisdom.

• in the patterns of a community’s life of worship and prayer.

• in other corporate values that intentionally put Jesus and his ways first.


People Feel Called

There is a big difference in organizational life when people feel called by God to be a part of a team and when they have a personal commitment to the mission. When the majority of people in an organization feel this way, there is a constant anticipation in the air about what God will do. People view even mundane tasks as contributing to something bigger than themselves and don’t mind work, even when it is hard or stressful.

There is an old story about a traveler in Europe who happened upon a town square that was dominated by a huge cathedral. While admiring the building, she heard the sound of hammer against stone emanating from a large tent nearby. Drawn by the sound, she went closer to see what was happening and found a small group of workmen chipping away at a large pile of stones. When she asked one of the workmen what they were doing, he scowled and gruffly answered that he was cutting stones, as if to rebuke her for asking such a stupid question about the obvious. However, when she asked another workman in another part of the tent, he peered up lovingly at the towering edifice before him and, with a big smile, said, “I’m building a cathedral!”

There is a big difference in a culture made up of cathedral builders rather than stonecutters. Cathedral builders live a vision that keeps them going even when the day-to-day tasks could easily wear them down. Cathedral builders love their jobs, no matter how routine, because they see their part fitting into a larger whole.


Communication Is Open

How information is handled has a deep impact on a corporate culture. If information is used as a token of power or rank, and frequently withheld even from those who may need to know in order to do their work well, a culture of stratification (where people feel excluded from the “in” group) can quickly grow. Obviously, it is not appropriate that everyone knows everything; however, cultures that are more transparent and open generally have less fear and more trust. Cultures with open communication have members who are more engaged with the mission because they feel more ownership. They have a greater feeling of being insiders.


Excellence, Grace, and Truth Bring Trust

Trust is a key factor in corporate cultures that really work. The interesting thing about trust is that it has to be earned rather than demanded. Two good questions about trust are:

• What encourages people to trust more?

• What destroys trust?

The answers to those questions most often include issues of integrity. Organizations in which people know that mutual respect is encouraged, that excellence is expected, that grace is available, and that leaders tell the truth—in other words, organizations with strong corporate values—are generally places where trust is also high.

Consider, for example, the situation in which a team is working on a very difficult and stressful task. If they come to the assignment with a mutual respect for the contributions each member can bring, and with a focus on what people do well rather than on where they struggle, the team often will move from tolerating one another to real synergy. An expectation that the task should be done with excellence gives the team a deep sense that what they are doing matters. Appropriate grace along the way helps to alleviate the fear of failure, replacing the fear with an open and teachable spirit. And if the team knows that leaders will tell them the truth about how things are going, and will be consistent with the stories they tell others, much of the negative politics of stressful organizational life is eliminated. This is a culture of trust.


Gratitude, Affirmation, and Celebration Abound

Very few cultures are truly nourishing if people are not thanked, affirmed (encouraged), and celebrated. Cultures that are fruitful are also genuinely fun communities. People laugh. People appreciate one another—and express that appreciation. People get excited about the successes of one another and recognize that where one is honored, all share in that honor. And when cultures include people from many backgrounds, the honoring of the various contributions that people bring and the celebration of their cultural diversity, can make a huge difference in whether diversity is seen as an asset or a problem.


Steve Hayner serves as president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. 


This article is excerpted from Nonprofit Leadership in a For-Profit World, available from Standard Publishing (www.standardpub.com).

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