‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’
From professional sports to business board rooms, from amateur sports to non-profit organizations, the importance of culture is consistently lauded, and leaders espouse the prerogative of establishing a ‘winning’ culture.
While these statements may be inspiring in the moment, they are mostly lacking in substance, and provide little direction as to what actually must be done on a daily basis.
There is rarely any discussion about how culture can or should be developed, winning or otherwise. From my experience, direct and indirect, establishing a strong culture is largely about clear communication, making the tough decisions in challenging moments, and clearly communicating those decisions.
Culture is not a concept that we have little control over. It is developed by the behaviors we choose to enact, model, and expect each and every day. Culture is ultimately dictated by what is allowed and what is required. Culture never happens by circumstance. Eventually, you will get what you allow and you will get what you require.
One thing is certain. In all situations, a culture will be established. No coach sets out to create a poor culture. Whether that cultural development process is positive, negative, or neutral will depend on the decisions coaches make all day, every day.
Beyond the development process, coaches must react appropriately when faced with obvious breaches of cultural expectations and cultural norms. The work required to sustain a culture never ends. Ever.
The following are ideas about how to navigate the development and management of culture, as well as some potential traps coaches may find themselves in.
Building a Culture
It’s simple (not easy!) and it is all about behavior, not ideas.
1. Know You Want. What values are foundational to accomplishing the goals of the organization? What values and mindsets will represent significant obstacles to accomplishing the goals of the organization? With these concepts in mind, it can be helpful to clearly and simply define what the team is all about. You don’t need to create posters or t-shirts, you just need to know what the team is all about, and where it will be headed. With a destination in place, the pathway becomes much clearer.
2. What Does It Look Like? Values are abstract ideas that must be translated into reality. Coaches must conceptualize how each value is acted out on a daily basis, in all contexts. There should be behavioral consistency across all aspects. For those working in a collegiate environment, coaches are typically responsible for the behavior of team members in athletic, academic, and social situations. As such, identifying what these values look will be critical to establishing that they are acted out on a daily basis.
While a general understanding of appropriate behavior should be spelled out, specific behaviors for every situation don’t need to be clarified. ‘You know it when you see it’ can be applied. Sometimes, the process is more organic and develops over time, with infractions often serving to clarify which behaviors are appropriate, and which are not.
3. Talk About It. Clear communication and consistent messaging help to shift behaviors. Pre-emptive and clear communication creates a foundation for establishing expectations, and a precedent for action when the desired cultural norms are violated. If everyone knows what’s expected, a lack of communication cannot be provided as a reason when expectations are met.
To be effective, communication must be clear and it must be consistent. Clarity is important as it mobilizes individuals towards action and it removes any ambiguity as to what is appropriate. Ambiguity can quickly be followed by indecision and exploitation, neither of which are conducive to strong culture.
Beyond clarity, consistency is important. The more often a message is received, the more ingrained it becomes. If coaches desire specific belief sets and behaviors, they need to specifically re-iterate those belief sets and behaviors with consistency. As coaches, we often prefer not to repeat ourselves. In this case, it’s not only warranted, it’s necessary. The message ‘This is who we are. This is what we do.’ needs to be heard as many times as possible for it to become real.
4. Ruthlessly Require. Once the cultural message has been established and communicated, requiring the cultural behaviors is where cultural change happens. This where culture is truly developed. It is developed on the back of decisions that are made every day about what is expected and what is allowed.
With black and white decisions, the choices are easy. If a swimmer commits a federal crime, clearly a response is warranted. If a swimmer shows up 3 minutes late to practice, now what do you do? How does the situation change when a different swimmer shows up 3 minutes the next day? What happens when the same swimmer shows up late again?
Black and white is simple. Grey is difficult. The answers are not obvious and the consequences of your decisions are not obvious. It’s ambiguous. For coaches struggling to decide when to intervene, a good heuristic is if you feel you should say something, you should. If there is any doubt, there is no doubt.
This is one of the most challenging tasks for any individual leading a group, regardless of the size. Yet with great challenge comes great opportunity as those individuals more adept at making effective cultural decisions will ultimately develop what they want. That is a significant competitive advantage.
One hesitation that coaches may have is that this approach can seem overly controlling. However, it’s not about control or authority. It’s about clarity. People WANT to know what’s expected and the want to know what is acceptable. No one likes ambiguity and clearly established boundaries are reassuring to all involved.
Further, CONSISTENCY is appreciated by athletes. Consistently requiring specific behaviors of all swimmers helps to establish what’s acceptable, and it also sends the message that the rules apply to everyone.
Everyone wants to know what the boundaries are. When they are established verbally, group members need to determine what those boundaries are actually in terms of what behaviors will be tolerated. At the same time, no one wants to be the individual who blatantly steps outside those boundaries and establishes the boundaries for everyone else.
The solution is to slowly test the boundaries.
With safe and innocuous ‘tests’ swimmers can find out what will be accepted and where the limits reside. Every ‘successful’ attempt will push the boundary out further, while the consequences of an unsuccessful attempt will be met with an inconsequential punishment or warning.
As the established safe boundary expands, so will the efforts to continue to test where the true boundaries lie. Over time, they will be more and more aggressive. Understandably so, swimmers will simply take the attitude ‘well, it worked out last time’.
The challenge arises for coaches in that these tests are rarely obvious violations of cultural norms. They are ambiguous violations that can typically explained away due to nuanced context. They provide information to the swimmer with little risk of consequences. That’s why the strategy is chosen.
However, if the initial tests are ignored, sooner or later, coaches will be faced with a situation that they can’t ignore. At that point, coaches will be asking themselves, ‘how did we get here?’ The answer is simply one ignored mini-violation of culture at a time.
This is why it is critical to intervene immediately and decisively, being very clear about what is acceptable and what is not. This is where culture is developed.
The challenging in coaching is to learn to recognize the difference between an extenuating circumstance (my car broke down) versus the beginning of repeated pattern (chronic tardiness and excuses). In the first case, empathy and understanding are appropriate. In the latter case, clear communications about future expectations is most appropriate.
Zero tolerance is not an effective strategy, nor is total understanding and permissiveness. Coaches will need to decide for themselves where they will choose to live, understanding the different consequences of the two approaches. There are no clear answers and coaches who are best able to navigate this ambiguity will be most successful.
Concessions and Power Transmission
Another area where cultural erosion can occur is when concessions are consistently made by the coaching staff, and a sort of power transmission begins to occur. While it’s always important to consider and act on the concerns of all swimmers, particularly when those concerns are legitimate, coaches must also be aware of the potential impact of doing so.
When navigating this challenge of knowing when to accommodate swimmers’ requests, the assumption is that the coach ultimately has the swimmers’ best interests in mind. If they primarily have their own interests in mind, the nature of the dynamic described below is fundamentally different. However, if coaches are making their decisions with the team and swimmers in mind, they will be appropriately guided through the process.
If coaches are approaching cultural issues with the sole intent of ‘winning’, or furthering their career, the following dynamics will quickly breakdown. It shifts from helping swimmers accomplish their goals to controlling swimmers to accomplish your own goals. Even if the behaviors and outcomes look similar in the short term, the long term consequences will be significantly different. Swimmers will always know when their best intentions are being considered, and when they are not, problems will arise sooner than later.
With younger swimmers, the line between authority figure and peer has become more and more blurred. This is true of parenting as well as coaching. Youth expect to have influence and the ability to make decisions, regardless of whether they have ‘earned the right’ to influence decisions. This is how they see the world. In contrast, many coaches, especially older coaches, do not share this perspective. Swimmers see it as a true partnership with equally weighted and equally valid perspectives.
The real danger does not innately in establishing a shared power structure. The greater danger is that youth often to do not have the experience to make effective decisions and are not prepared for such a structure. They also lack the long-term perspective to appreciate how their decisions effect the long-term. They know what they want NOW, and are less concerned with the long-term consequences of these immediate decisions.
Of course, this is why swimmers have hired a COACH- to COACH them through these challenges.
Shared power structures simply undermine the role coaches are expected to play. They are expected to provide wisdom and guidance that swimmers need to accomplish their goals. This is particularly true when that wisdom calls for swimmers to perform activities that they would otherwise not perform (i.e. really hard sets, wake up early before school, etc…).
As with behavioral erosion, swimmers will initially ask for seemingly innocuous modifications or making innocent requests. When those requests are successful, they begin to ask for more and more. In some cases, the requests that are made can make a lot of sense. Here, coaches need to balance the value of the particular change with the potential dangers of establishing a shared power dynamic.
Over time, swimmers come to expect that their requests are granted. They come to expect that their opinion not only have influence, but decisive power. Problems arise when they feel entitled to have what they want, and coaches eventually tell them no.
The more you give, the more they expect.
Beyond the problem of asking for more and more, when these requests are ultimately denied, it creates feelings of deep resentment. Swimmers have come to believe that they have a right to what they want, and denying them of that they want will feel unfair to them.
At this point, coaches are put in a difficult situation. On one hand, they can provide swimmers with what they want in the short-term, which often works against what swimmers want in the long term. The other option is to deny the request, which creates feelings of resentment and mistrust.
Clearly, the best solution is to not find yourself in this situation in the first place.
As with many cultural problems, there are no simple answers to these dynamics. However, awareness of the potential problem and the various dynamics that arise, can help coaches better navigate these cultural challenges that can determine the cultural that is established on a team, and the success it ultimately experiences.
Define Listening For Me
A 3rd potential area for cultural issues to develop is the idea of what constitutes ‘listening’. It emerges as a result of the challenges of requiring behavior change and managing the requests swimmers make for change.
A complaint that many coaches receive is that swimmers feel that their coaches ‘don’t listen to us/me’. When considered in the context of the peer/authority dynamics, it arises due to how youth perceive authority figures- as peers with equally valid opinions.
Young people who are used to expressing their opinion or desires, and then getting what they want, will typically expect that dynamic to continue with their swim coaches. If coaches are facilitating change or upholding a culture with high expectations, they will often be asking swimmers to behave in ways they may not be interested in the short-term to help them achieve what they want in the long-term.
We now have a conflict.
Swimmers will express their opinions and fail to get what they want. They internalize this process as ‘you don’t listen to me’, regardless of whether a coach takes the time to listen and understand the swimmers’ perspective.
Coaches can best navigate this issue with open and clear communication about the nature of the coach-athlete relationship, as well as describe how two groups can listen and understand each other’s position, while fundamentally disagreeing with it.
‘I will always listen you what you say. However, I may very well disagree with what you say, and choose to act differently.’
‘There is a difference between listening to someone and honoring their request.’
'While I understand and appreciate your concerns, as an individual who has helped others accomplish what you are seeking, the change you are seeking is not aligned with what you have explicitly stated to be your goals.'
As above, this process must be rooted with the intention of truly helping swimmers accomplish what they have stated they wish you accomplish. These conflicts are simply part of the process of guiding individuals toward their goals. It is COACHING.
This type of conflict can be met with education about the difference between understanding and agreement, a sincere attempt to listen, and an acceptance that disagreements may still remain. Failure to listen and demonstrate an understanding of where your swimmers are coming from will build resentment and greatly undermine to sustain a happy and high performing culture.
The culture of a team, the happiness of the swimmers, and the performance of the unit are built upon a foundation of daily interactions among coaches and team members. Clear communication and a strong and unambiguous stance on fundamental issues is the bedrock upon which strong culture is built and ultimately maintained.
Well intentioned coaches can quickly make mistakes in creating and upholding their culture by failing to define and require the behaviors they desire, make too many concessions early on, and by failing to clarify what communication and listening are really all about. With awareness of these potential traps and the dynamics that operate within these situations, coaches can be prepared to effectively handle situations that arise, and avoid finding themselves in situations that become unsalvageable.
If you’re asking yourself, ‘How did I get here?’, the answer is often one small, seemingly innocuous decision at a time.