How One Post-It Note Reshaped A Culture

This article originally appeared at Inc.

Culture is the stealth force of organizational behavior. Positive cultures can lift people to higher levels of performance, while negative cultures can deflate even high-performing people. There’s little doubt that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” as Peter Drucker famously put it. But what can leaders do to create a culture that doesn’t eat its own people?

According to a 2013 study on motivation and culture by the American Psychological Association, it starts with just 19 words:

That was the key finding by a research team at Stanford, Yale and Columbia after analyzing two different sets of feedback provided to students by their teachers. Some students received only generic comments on their papers, like “good job” or “nice work,” while others got something more: the 19-word encouragement scrawled on a Post-It note.

It turns out that this small gesture paid big returns, especially for students of color: 72 percent voluntarily revised their papers, compared to just 17 percent who just received the generic feedback message. Not only that, but the students who got the Post-It note also received better overall grades on their work.

The research highlights a significant lesson for leaders trying to build more positive cultures inside their own organizations: Great cultures are marked by great caring. Tucked inside those 19 words are three specific lessons for building and sustaining a culture of caring.

Setting a Challenge Point

As the Post-It note study makes clear, people rise or fall according to our expectations. Setting the right challenge point — one that sits slightly beyond their grasp but remains within reach — is the first way leaders create a culture of caring. Telling your employees that “I have very high expectations” not only shows that you know you them well enough to pinpoint their strengths, but also demonstrates that you trust them to reach that level of excellence.

When leaders communicate high expectations, they articulate a clear vision of what success looks like and how others can go about achieving it. With the successful completion of one challenge point comes another, creating a virtuous cycle of aspiration and execution.

Rather than issue top-down directives, leaders work in tandem with their people to create a series of personal missions that allow employees to feel more connected to the broader mission of their teams and organizations. And that sense of connection fuels belonging and contribution, the feel-go and do-good drivers of positive culture.

Guiding People With Feedback

Many leaders aren’t comfortable giving critical feedback, which is why the first part of the Post-It note (“I am giving you these comments”) is so important. Providing regular feedback, even when it’s difficult to share, can provide a much-needed boost to performance and is the reason, according to research by Zenger-Folkman, that employees favor it by a margin of three-to-one. Ultimately, we give feedback to the people that matter to us. Creating that dialogue with employees helps builds a culture of caring.

But it’s not just a question of greater frequency — the message matters, too. Shifting to a culture of caring starts with a new mindset about performance.

Instead of running through a litany of past mistakes that employees can no longer change, leaders should make time and room for employees to sketch their own way forward. By asking more questions and listening with greater attention, leaders can turn feedback from a trial into a partnership — and with that change in tone and trajectory, foster greater optimism, trust and respect.

Providing Continuous Support

Holding people to a high standard and facilitating their growth shows leadership engagement, but a true culture of caring emerges when leaders provide continuous support to their employees. Whether that takes the form of just-in-time learning opportunities, additional training resources or even a spontaneous perk, employees feel more connected and cared for when these gestures are ongoing.

Which is why the final encouragement of the Post-It note (“I know you can reach them”) may be the hardest to demonstrate. Building and sustaining a culture of caring demands steadiness, sensitivity and sacrifice. It requires leaders to check their own assumptions about what their employees need to be successful and to seek input on how they can best support them. Unless leaders can demonstrate that level of commitment, they shouldn’t expect their employees to show it, either.  

It’s helpful to remember that the word “culture” originates from the Latin term cultus, or care. If we care about having a great culture, we need to start caring a lot more.

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