by Sharon Billings

There’s a 60 Minutes clip I remember watching as part of a coach training many years ago. The interviewer was talking to young kids one at a time. Each kid was offered a glass of lemonade which was intentionally made with salt instead of sugar, making it taste terrible.  

When given the lemonade, nearly all of the boys responded with some variation of “yuck, that’s disgusting!” When the girls were offered the same lemonade, many did not initially respond at all and when asked how they liked the lemonade nearly all of them said some variation of “it’s fine, thank you.”  WTF!!! 

Cultural conditioning is a sneaky b*tch. 

We’re ALL conditioned by the signals we receive throughout our lives, through what we experience and by what we observe. We instinctually assign meaning to the signals we consume –  which behaviors are rewarded, which are reinforced and which are discouraged.  The accumulation informs how we think we “should” behave, so we adapt accordingly. Whether we know it or not, cultural conditioning influences our behaviors and our choice in massive ways. 

Cultural conditioning is contextual.  

From a young age girls and boys are often rewarded for different behaviors so it makes sense that they would behave differently. The signals reflect what the sender values. The senders are simply behaving in ways that reflect the values of their own cultural conditioning.  It’s a cycle that’s perpetuated until someone starts receiving different signals, frequently the result of a shift in context.  

  • Cultural signals can vary from one friend group to another. Our expectations and behaviors follow. Sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically.
  • As we move from school to school some cultural signals are reinforced and some are new.  We typically adapt to what is repeatedly reinforced. 
  • When we move from one community to another, we often experience a shift in cultural norms.  How easily we adapt may reflect our own receptivity to change.  
  • Work environments can send dramatically different cultural signals from one job to another. Trying to decode the culture signals and adapt accordingly can be difficult.  What organizations claim to value is often NOT aligned with what people actually experience.  This misalignment undermines people’s efforts to do their best work. 

Stated Culture vs. Actual Culture 

Culture in an organization can be defined as the shared values that characterize the way people work together within that organization. The evidence of culture in any organization lies in the observable behaviors that reflect these shared values.

But just because an organization proudly displays its values on the walls throughout its office or on its website does NOT mean that this accurately describes its actual culture. In fact, it rarely does.  In truth… 

The greatest influence on an organization’s culture is in the leader’s observed behaviors.   

Leaders send signals everyday about what they value and what behaviors they expect in others.  They send signals in what they reward, reinforce and discourage.  People are observing and internalizing these signals all the time whether leaders (or the observers) realize it or not.  These signals inform the values that define an organization’s actual culture. 

When people experience a gap between an organization’s stated values and a leader’s behaviors they prioritize what they observe over what they are told.  Actions matter more than words.  Our brains are wired to track evidence. And our brains do not respond well to the confusion of inconsistency.

The cost of culture confusion is steep.

When people experience a gap between stated values (desired culture) and lived experience (actual culture) it can result in:

  • Diminished trust in leadership
  • Decreased engagement which impedes progress
  • Diverted attention away from achieving results toward trying to decode behavioral expectations

Questions to consider (informed by common examples I come across).  

  • Are you stating that innovation is important but discouraging risk-taking?
  • Does the value posted on the wall say your organization values transparency but people often express feeling left in the dark and you’re ok with that?
  • Are you evangelical about cross-functional collaboration but you only incentivize individual performance?
  • Do you say you value diverse perspectives but dismiss people for expressing dissenting opinions? Maybe even labeling them as “difficult”? 
  • Is integrity highlighted as value on your website but you reward a salesperson who landed a new client with a pitch that included potentially misleading data?  

Leaders underestimate the impact their actions have and the extent to which people are paying attention.  They’re often undermining progress without realizing it.  

I’m devoted to solving this problem.


  1. Get curious and get honest with yourself.  Consider if you might be unintentionally sending mixed signals.   Enlist others to gain perspective. 
  1. Consider your culture by reviewing your stated values. Why are these your stated values?  How will demonstrating these values help you achieve your goals?  Consider if they’re the right values.
  1. Do you provide evidence that these values matter by regularly modeling?   Can you commit to transparently rewarding and reinforcing behaviors across your organization that reflect these values? If not, they might not be the right values.

Inevitably, culture is an extension of you as a leader. The good news is that you can influence what that looks like.  The harder truth is that you’re directly influencing culture whether you want to or not.  “Do as I say, not as I do” simply doesn’t work.

Culture matters!  And when your stated culture aligns with people’s experience it can provide the rocket fuel that drives your business success.

I help leaders make it easier to achieve just that.  

Let’s connect to explore how I can help you cultivate a meaningful culture that aligns with who you are as a leader and helps you achieve your most ambitious goals.  

Is Your CULTURE Undermining Progress?

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