Gaining Leadership Control: One Simple Thing


Most every busy leader longs for some magic wand that will help them simplify the monstrosity that is their life and role.  

  • Wouldn’t it be great if there was one simple thing any leader could do to stimulate a positive team culture, deepen the bonds between teammates, and create a “virtuous circle” of effective group behavior?
  • What if that one simple thing took almost no time and cost absolutely nothing?
  • Wouldn’t it be completely amazing if this one simple thing was something that everybody, everywhere, already knows how to do?

Culture-Building Rituals

Culture: The Driving Force of Every Team

My friend John King, co-author of Tribal Leadership and a founder at CultureSync says it best: “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

You know this from experience:

When a team’s culture lines up with its goals, great results follow naturally. Get out of step, and it’s tough going for everyone.

It’s easyfun, and engaging to talk about culture. Doing something about it often seems a lot harder. Moreover, when we do take on culture-changing initiatives, they often tend to be big, complex, and… well, ineffective.

Sometimes, the best interventions are actually the simplest.

Rituals:  A Critical Culture-Building Element

Like national or societal cultures, team and organization cultures emerge not only from shared beliefs, but also from the repeated practices or rituals that express and reinforce those beliefs.

Companies and teams often create rituals organically and unconsciously. Think of a routine performance management practice as an example.

The people, teams, and systems that create these rituals often don’t even recognize the powerful impact these have on the organization-wide culture.

These unconsciously-created rituals aren’t necessarily bad or damaging. In fact, many are excellent. The point is that they may not be created with a specific intent, and therefore their consequences are largely unintended.

The most powerfully effective leaders create rituals consciously.

[Kristin Arnold’s Extraordinary Team blog covers one here.]


A Good Example:

So, what is one amazingly simple ritual that any team can put in place and that has a specific, positive, and predictable outcome?  

Start every team meeting with recognition. Just take 3 to 5 minutes at the beginning of each group session and have members of your team thank and recognize others for their shared work.


The Benefits of a Simple, Consistent Recognition Ritual

I recently worked for a large financial services company where this practice was widespread. Nearly every meeting at this company began with a few minutes during which people simply said “thank you” to a teammate (or two, three, or even more). Sometimes these thanks were given for small gestures and sometimes for heroic efforts.

People thanked and recognized each other not just for what they did, but also for how they did it.

More importantly, they did this consistently, day-in and day-out. The ritual made it real, an integral part of the way we did things.

I’ve taken this practice to a new organization and started it with a cross-functional team.

  • The practice is simple
  • It costs nothing
  • It fosters a team culture in which people experience both being valued and valuing the effort and bearing of others

And in just a few short weeks, it’s spreading on its own.

When you first start this practice, it might feel a bit like a middle-school dance: you might have some uncomfortable silence during which people wait for someone else to go first. This is your opportunity to jump in and just thank someone. The only secret here is to be authentic  and specific as Steven Demaio wrote about in this HBR blog in 2009, and then to invite others to share.

It’s a good practice to keep a running list of things to recognize people for so you won’t forget between gatherings.

On Thanks and Thanksgiving

It won’t be long before teammates jump at the chance to thank others for their efforts. Other teammates will be drawn naturally to participate – not only as “recognizers,” but also in an effort to be recognized.

This is the key to the virtuous circle.

People want to give thanks, and they also want to do the kinds of things that will gain them the authentic thanks of their teammates. Good feelings beget good actions.

Formal recognition programs are useful and important. Great leaders have always understood that while there’s an important place for formal recognition, frequent, authentic thanks are essential to effective teamwork.

Make recognition a regular part of all your meetings and you too will see the power of this simple, no-cost ritual.

What culture-building rituals are in place where you work? How are you using them? What are one or two positive rituals you’d like to see take hold in other organizations? Most important, who can you call right now to say, “thank you?”

Jonathan Magid is Training & Organizational Development at Lennox International
He helps with Change Leadership, Executive Development, and Organization Design
Email | LinkedIn |  Web |  Blog | Book

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6 responses to “Gaining Leadership Control: One Simple Thing

  1. Great post! I always start team meetings with a few minutes to share “success stories” – things that are going well in their job right now, things they really enjoy about coming to work, specific things that a student did, etc. Often those stories involve thanking co-workers for ways they helped in a situation or things someone said that encouraged them. It really changed the tone of our meetings and developed a great culture of encouragement and appreciation. Small things make a BIG difference!


  2. Thanks, Hilda. Success stories such as you describe are a great tool. Rituals like these establish the context for our interactions. They set expectations and then build on those. After all, who wouldn’t want to share a triumph when they know that the people around them will embrace it authentically?

    I’ve found it pretty remarkable how simple practices can have such a powerful impact. Sometimes I think we need to get out of our global or enterprise mindset a bit. Or, to bend the famous Tip O’Neill quote that “all politics is local,” perhaps we can look at it as “all culture is local.”

    Thanks again for your comment!


  3. Pingback: Leadership updates for 01/27/2012·

  4. You raise an interesting paradox. Thanks and recognition can help change a sour team to one that is more grateful for the strengths and weaknesses of the people around them. But what about accountability? The biggest complaint from organizations I have worked with has not been a lack of recognition but rather a lack of accountability… that is, people are not being held accountable for expected results and are therefore tacitly being recognized and thanked for poor performance. Support must be balanced equally and oppositely with challenge in order for a performance culture to thrive.


  5. Mary – thanks so much for the comment. I have to say that I don’t see it as a paradox at all. In fact, research shows that the simple act of saying “thank you” actually increases performance. Here’s an article that’s well worth reading:

    In the article, Bob Sutton, who wrote “The No Asshole Rule” and “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” quotes a study that found that a group of fundraisers who were thanked for their efforts outperformed, by a huge margin, a similar group that was not recognized.

    I think the whole question of accountability in the workforce is fundamentally backward and totally broken. First of all, people cannot be “held accountable.” People can only choose accountability; to be accountable is to own one’s own results and circumstances. Secondly, in virtually every organization that I have encountered, when people talk about “holding others accountable,” what they are really talking about is handing out blame for things that have gone wrong. That’s fine; it’s essential that leaders be honest: “your work on this project did not meet my expectations, and I’m guessing it probably didn’t meet yours, either. What can we do together to move on positively from here?”

    I’m confident that you are not recommending in your comment that leaders should withhold thanks and recognition in order to be create an atmosphere that offers sufficient challenge for people to step into higher levels of accountability. In fact, it is evident that an organization wishing to create a genuine performance culture, as opposed to a culture of compliance with high demands, would teach its managers never to miss any opportunity to render an authentic thanks.

    Current research indicates that almost 2 out of 3 employees in corporate environments in the US are passively or actively disengaged. Highly engaged employees contribute at vastly higher levels than others. In my opinion, it’s pretty clear that the issue for most organizations isn’t “holding people accountable,” it’s holding ourselves as leaders accountable for creating cultures that make people tune out and coast along until they can find another job they hope will be better.


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