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Why Culture Always Trumps Politics (And Your Employee Handbook)

Company Culture

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):

1. Employee mindset drives behavior and results far better than company policy.

2. Leaders who strive to develop belief patterns over behavior patterns are more successful.

3. "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" is a bunch of bull.


One of the lessons that I learned the hard way is that while the Marine Corps may be good at forcing you to do things you don't want to do during bootcamp, it strives very hard to instill in leaders the principle that your people will perform better if they want to accomplish your mission. It’s easier for most leaders to simply task their people and assume they want to accomplish those tasks. It’s also a trap for leaders to believe that simply because they enact a policy change or create some new rule that their people will happily and consistently obey and get in step. Believing that a policy can change behavior is akin to believing that the government law can solve all of a society’s problems.

When Southwest Airlines hires a new pilot, they don't merely check their resume to make sure the pilot's qualified. It's generally understood (in any organization) that the person who you hire must be qualified and capable of "doing the job". Southwest also asks the gate personnel and flight crew to report on the attitude and behavior of the pilot during their first two flights. Just about anyone can fake a good interview, but it's difficult to trick a dozen people who you're spending hours upon hours with and who have seen how you've interacted with everyone from passengers and crew members, to tower personnel and ground staff.

Southwest airplane flying above the clouds


“An organization will always be more successful when its people believe in what they're doing…”


The point is, an organization will always be more successful when its people believe in what they're doing, and not merely going through the motions to accomplish a task and earn a paycheck. This is the culture. And while there are about five hundred bajillion definitions of culture in the professional setting these days, it can really be boiled down to one word: personality. Your company’s culture is simply its personality. It’s the attitude, beliefs, and habits of all of your people combined into one pot on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. It’s what they do when no one is looking, what they do when the boss is looking, what they do when the customer is looking. It’s all of it combined.

Here are some quick facts on culture as it relates to leadership:

  • Only about one in four executives (28%) report that they understand their organization’s culture. They know that culture is important, but they don’t fully understand it. (Source: Deloitte)

  • Roughly 70% of the variance between awful, average, and excellent cultures can be found in the knowledge, skills, and talent of the immediate supervisor or team leader. (Source: Gallup)


When I was a Platoon Sergeant in charge of the training and lives of about 40 Marines preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, I had a competitive streak in my heart to turn our platoon into the best in the battalion. Knowing that success in combat is very much the result of a team effort, I understood that the only way to be the best was to have each man perform at their best at all times and to genuinely care for each other and about the mission. (This of course, included myself). Despite what many people assume, Marines aren’t all Greek gods who live together all of the time. Some Marines were married, some were heavy, some were weak, some were stupid. Some were new. And we all had to be on the same page physically, mentally, and emotionally.

So how did I train my very unique and individual Marines to be the best performing team when I couldn’t always be around them? It was actually a pretty simple process. I communicated with them much more than your average Platoon Sergeant would, and I trained the heck out of them. Here’s what that looked like.


“I would clarify the role of each squad and allow the Squad Leaders to do the same for their Team Leaders…”


Prior to each training event, I would make sure they had the game plan. I would clarify the role of each squad and allow the Squad Leaders to do the same for their Team Leaders and them to do so with the individual Marines. That’s pretty common. I took it a step further and asked each squad leader to come up with how they believed they could best accomplish the mission. Then I had them cross-talk to see who the best squad for each task would be. They, in turn, communicated back to me, and I refined the plan.

This made sure that they always felt they had a voice with me, even if they didn’t have a vote. That’s one of the most important communication and trust-building lessons I learned as a leader. Always give your people a voice, even if they don’t have a vote. It shows them that you truly value their opinion, which means you value them.


I love training more than almost anything else. But where many organizations go wrong is that they train their people in silos. Generally, the function of training is to ensure that your teammates can perform better as a team. Yes, some skills are individually practiced, but they are nearly always in support of a team. One of the Marine Corps Leadership Principles is to train your Marines as a team. Even if each of your people is an individual rockstar, the team will fail if they’re not united.

Military team training with boat

And what do I mean when I say “united”? All I mean is that they care about the mission being accomplished and about each other’s’ welfare. This is really distilled through our priorities of “Mission Accomplishment” and “Troop Welfare”. Ironically, if your people know how much you care about the mission or company objectives, and they believe you count them as instrumental to the success of the team, they are more likely to trust that your hard truths, difficult conversations, and critiques are actually in their best interest. Trust me, you don’t have to be soft to build trust with another person if they believe those things.


Granted, the stresses and demands of the military are different from most business requirements. But people are people, and the principles and practices hold true. At its most basic, the word “company” means a group of people who enjoy each other’s presence and work towards the same end. To improve the effectiveness of your team, do the following:

  1. Focus on the mindset of your people and not their behavior. What do you want them to believe about the company, its mission, and themselves? That will drive behavior.

  2. Overcommunicate and train your people as a team. Don’t create silos. This will enable them to perform the behaviors you seek. Always give your people a voice, even if they don’t get a vote.

  3. Build trust with your people by showing them that you value their contribution to the team. If you don’t trust them, why are they on your team? Make the necessary adjustments to yourself or your team.

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