How to Build a Healthy Organizational Culture – Episode 208 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

healthy organizational culture

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Healthy & High-Performing Masterclass Replay

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Culture is difficult to define but easy to feel, and it’s hard to overestimate the role culture plays in your team’s health and efficiency.

A healthy culture can help turbocharge your vision and make progress toward the calling that God has for your church. On the other hand, an unhealthy team culture will actually erode your vision and derail your strategy.


Our Unstuck team recently offered a masterclass event called “Healthy & High-Performing: Get Your Team Back on Track,” hosted by Lance Witt. We touched on topics like effective management, the spiritual and emotional health of teams, balancing health and performance, and more. (If you want to access the full replay and workbook, you can get that by subscribing to the Unstuck Learning Hub).

In this conversation replay, I sat down with Lance to discuss the “why” and “how” of shaping a healthy organizational culture. We also walked through:

  • The benefits of a healthy organizational culture
  • Organizations that model culture well
  • Why prioritizing culture is so difficult for senior pastors
  • Modeling behaviors over values
In most organizations, culture is unspoken and unexamined. But the best organizations and ministries are intentional in the articulation of the kind of culture they want to have. #unstuckchurch [episode 208] Click to Tweet As a leader, you need to be the change before you can see the change. You need to model the behaviors that you want to shape your culture. #unstuckchurch [episode 208] Click to Tweet

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Creating a culture that leads to ministry results and at the same time produces greater team health can often seem like an elusive goal. So on today’s podcast, we’re sharing a conversation that Tony had with Lance Witt during our recent healthy and high-performing teams masterclass on how your church can create a great organizational culture. If you happened to miss the masterclass and you want to dive into this content as well as the conversations about developing great managers, investing in the spiritual and emotional health of your team and how to balance performance and health, you can access the full masterclass replay and resources through The Unstuck Learning Hub. For just $49 a month, you’ll better your leadership through our online courses, full masterclass, archive assessments, eBooks and more. Just go to to sign up today. Now let’s join Tony and Lance for today’s conversation.

Tony (01:04):

I hear you talking a lot, Lance, about creating great culture. But I think a lot of leaders just don’t know how to shape the culture. Do you agree?

Lance (01:13):

Oh yeah, totally. And I would say I’ve certainly struggled with that because the topic of culture can feel sort of ambiguous and a bit ethereal, but culture is one of those words, Tony, I think it’s really hard to define, but it’s really easy to feel. I mean, I think about this whenever I go visit a foreign country or even when you enter a restaurant or you go to a neighboring church that really isn’t your flavor. You definitely feel it. And I think when it comes to organizational health and effectiveness, while it might be somewhat difficult to define, you can’t really overestimate its importance. I mean, Sam Chan in his book on church culture says, “Culture is the most powerful factor in any organization.” Now whether we agree a hundred percent, I think we all agree it does matter. And in fact, in a separate survey, 95% of job candidates believe culture is more important than compensation. And I go, wow, that means it’s a big deal. So when I think about this, I think of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chick-fil-A. So they both sell chicken, but they have radically different cultures, right? Over the top friendliness and exceptional customer service has been a key differentiator for Chick-fil-A for years and has actually fueled their success. And you feel the Chick-fil-A culture every time you walk into one of their franchises. Whether it’s Charleston or Chattanooga, you feel it. I think about Southwest airlines. Now, like every other commercial, they fly planes. But in a day when airlines have really struggled to make a profit, Southwest has become year after year after year, one of the most profitable airlines in aviation history. And everybody would tell you that a lot of it has to do with this issue of culture. So culture is one of those things that when it’s good, it can be really good. And when it’s bad, it can really stink up the place and be really bad. It can even be toxic and even damaging to people. So a healthy culture can actually help turbocharge your vision. It can actually help you make progress toward the calling that God has on your life and your church. But an unhealthy team culture will actually erode your vision. It can derail your strategy. And I think about this famous quote from Peter Drucker, and at least it’s attributed to him. He said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Also like what Sam Chan also says, when he says, “Toxic culture is like carbon monoxide. You don’t see it or smell it. You just wake up dead.” So pretty powerful thoughts, right? So Tony, you’ve worked with a ton of churches. What are some of the benefits to churches and to team cultures when they get this thing right?

Tony (04:26):

First of all, let me just say it’s so interesting to me that I don’t even have to, I could walk into an organization and more specifically into a church, and I don’t even need to know what their written values are or those written behaviors are that they’re trying to pursue as an organization, as a team. It just becomes evident based on what I experience. And as I engage with people from the team, in fact, just recently, thankfully, this wasn’t a church organization, but I was interacting with an organization, and everybody that I encountered on the team was just, it was just like they were holding bitterness. They were negative. And they’re trying. It was just like they’re creating one challenge after another as I was trying to engage with the team. And I thought, my goodness, again, I don’t even need to know what their written values are. It’s very evident that the culture is in place. And so, you’re right, Lance. So there’s just, this is a key attribute of both team health and performance that we have to pay attention to. And you’re right. There’s certainly some benefit that we see in church teams that get this right as well. In fact, I made a list of some things that I’ve noticed as I’ve worked through the years with hundreds of churches. When they get culture right, it really makes a difference in all of these different areas. For example, just reducing the of turnover on a team. If you want to reduce turnover, you have to pay attention to your team’s culture. If you want to raise the satisfaction level of your team, you need to pay attention to your culture. If you want to get everybody locking arms, rowing in the same direction, you have to pay attention to culture. If you want to differentiate yourself from other teams, and honestly, again, we’re competing with other organizations and in our communities for people’s time and attention, and frankly for talent on our teams. And if we want to differentiate ourselves, we have to pay attention to culture. If you want to build a greater sense of team, we need to pay attention to culture. If we want to attract the right people to our team, we have to pay attention to culture. If we want to minimize all that sideways energy that seems to just drag teams and organizations down, we have to pay attention to culture. And maybe most importantly for today’s conversation, if we want to build healthy, high-performing teams, we do, we have to pay attention to culture. And so, Lance, if a culture is that important. If it provides those benefits and so many more, why aren’t churches more intentional when it comes to creating their culture?

Lance (07:22):

Yeah, I think when you ask that question, my mind goes to two significant reasons. And the first one is that culture rarely feels urgent, right? Like you said, Sunday’s always coming. It’s what Four Disciplines of Execution calls the whirlwind, right? So culture doesn’t feel urgent, but man next Sunday services or volunteer appreciation event or student camp that’s coming up this month, those always feel urgent, and they have a ticking clock attached to them. So I doubt that you’re going to find any pastor who would say, I don’t really believe culture matters. But the truth is the tyranny of the urgent just keeps it sort of marginalized, and we never really get around to it. And then I’d say a second reason why churches often don’t get to this is so many leaders and pastors are focused on what they’re doing, what they’re trying to accomplish, prepping sermons, doing their job, that they don’t connect the dots on how much team culture impacts the desired results that we’re really after as a team. And so I think those are at least a couple of reasons why often churches don’t really get after this.

Tony (08:37):

Yeah. And I agree, Lance, and, kind of related to the last thing you mentioned, I do think for leaders and including here pastors in churches, I think we’re so focused on the results. We’re so focused on the mission that we want to accomplish. It’s those things that get our immediate attention. Culture just takes time. And because of that, if we’re going to invest in actually getting to a healthy culture, it’s the long-term play. And for those of us who are strong in our leadership, we want immediate results. And so taking that time to really invest for the long-term, for the long-term benefit of a healthy thriving culture, I think that’s sometimes a stumbling block for those of us in ministry leadership roles as well. But Lance, maybe you could start though by helping to define what is culture?

Lance (09:35):

Well, every church, every ministry organization, every company has one. They have a distinct culture, a kind of unique DNA who makes them who they are. But I think part of the problem is is that often culture isn’t really evaluated and articulated. And in many organizations, the culture is just unspoken and unexamined. And I really believe that the best companies, the best churches, the best ministries are intentional in the articulation of the desired culture that they’re really after. And it has been said, to sort of really get to answer your question, that culture is the unspoken rules of how things get done. And for team health and effectiveness, for the sake of new people joining your team, for the sake of high-performance, someone has to speak the unspoken rules. The team culture of most ministry organizations I’ve been around, it’s squishy, it’s foggy, it’s loaded with landmines. And sometimes when I’m having this discussion with leaders, I’ll ask them, “Hey, if I gave you 15 seconds to define culture, what would you say?” And you get a lot of sort of deer in the headlights and blank stares, because the truth is it’s kind of hard to concisely figure out what you would use as a definition. And so like we’ve talked about, it’s easy to feel it, hard to describe it. It’s easy to experience it, but more difficult to explain it. So I think one way to think about defining culture is it’s the style or personality of an organization that is their expression of culture. So think of it this way. There is a Ritz Carlton way of doing customer service. There is a Starbucks way of doing business. There is a Salvation Army way of doing ministry. And so I kind of had this very concise definition and there’s a lot of them, but one that I like to use, “The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders.” So when it comes to shaping culture, leaders get the behavior that they consistently and regularly exhibit and then the behaviors that they also tolerate. So in healthy teams, these behaviors are intentionally and strategically decided upon, then they’re articulated, then they’re regularly inspected. And then they also are celebrated. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” That’s also a great culture statement. So you’re going to notice that as we talk at Unstuck about culture, we’re going to use the language of behaviors. Now there’s nothing wrong with talking about culture values, but we just think the idea of behaviors makes this more concrete and less fuzzy. So, you know, we might say that we value good customer service, but a leadership behavior is more specific and concrete. Like for example, we never point to something in terms of direction. We actually take people where they need to go. That’s a behavior. I remember when we were trying to do this with my team at Saddleback Church, one of the things that we kind of landed on, because we were a fast moving high pressure culture, we had a behavior around we’re going to care for each other personally, not just professionally. And so I remember, because we had adopted that behavior, one day, one of the guys on my team, his son had just been diagnosed with a life-changing disease. And as we were walking into the meeting, he was visibly upset. And I asked him, I said, “Hey, do you mind if we just share with the team today, what’s going on?” And then we actually implemented a behavior. We took our entire team meeting that day to pray, to listen, you know, to just care and be with a friend who’s going through a problem. And so over the next months, we modeled just really walking with that guy through his personal stuff. And sometimes that meant putting our team projects a little bit on the side. So, Tony, there might be a few pastors who are sitting there listening, and still, they’re not really convinced this sort of soft, squishy, warm, fuzzy stuff about culture is really worth putting energy and time into because every leader watching this masterclass, they’re busy, their plate is full. So to give time to this means that something else may need to be taken off their plate. What would you say to that senior leader?

Tony (14:21):

Yeah, Lance, that’s a great question. And when we talk about four things that senior pastors can delegate. And those four things include being the primary spiritual leader and teacher at the church, being the primary vision caster, leading other leaders, because we do, we need someone to lead the key leaders on our team. But this fourth area that senior pastors can’t delegate, it’s all about culture, as being the primary creator and guardian of culture. I mean, let’s face it. Culture is not just a way to make people feel good about where they work. It has very positive results in terms of effectiveness and productivity too. So just as examples, when culture is healthy, people feel valued and they tend to work harder too, when that’s the case. When culture is healthy, there’s less office politics, less drama, as I mentioned earlier on, and less sideways energy that tends to divert us from what we’re trying to accomplish. When the culture is right, there’s more collaboration and there’s more buy-in. I mean, people really want to be a part of the process of dreaming and thinking about what’s next for our ministry. When the culture is healthy, there’s more authenticity and humility from leadership. And as a result of that, I think there’s a higher level of trust that gets built and more respect for leadership. And obviously that results in less turnover in the long run. So that’s a good thing. Culture and results, they’re definitely linked. And one example of this I’ve appreciated is this quote from David Ridley, who’s the chief, or was the chief marketing officer at Southwest. We would all recognize Southwest has an amazing culture. And what he shared was this, “At Southwest, we believe profitability and culture go hand in hand.” And as I mentioned in my experience, working with church teams through the years, in my estimation, they’re linked as well. It’s not about profit, but it’s about kingdom impact. And when churches get culture right, there’s no doubt about it in my mind, they’re having a greater kingdom impact as well. So I thought it might be helpful for you to maybe hear a specific example from my backstory. I remember inheriting a team many, many years ago. So, I mean, it was a long time ago. You won’t even be able to guess where it was. It certainly wasn’t a part of The Unstuck Group. For good or bad, I developed this team. But I inherited the team way back then, and when I inherited the team, what I got, and I’m going to use the term team loosely here, because really it was a collection of individuals that were very disconnected from each other. Everybody was operating very independently. And because of that, not only did the people on the team not know what each other was doing, they didn’t know anything about each other either. So they were completely disconnected in work, and they were disconnected in their personal lives. The wins weren’t defined, and as a result of that, people just didn’t have a sense of purpose in their jobs. And there was no collective sense of purpose for what the team was trying to accomplish. And, you know, as a result of that, the team really wasn’t producing much as far as the results were concerned. And I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but when the team doesn’t produce results, what I was noticing is they started to blame each other for that lack of results as well. I mean, anybody from the outside looking in to this experience would think this is a completely dysfunctional culture that exists. And as a result of that, the team wasn’t producing. So I recognized pretty early on, we need a culture change and I started to work hard at what’s it gonna take to bring the team together? What’s it going to take to break down the silos? How can I help the team get to know each other? And as a result of that, over time, begin to trust each other more? I learned quickly, I needed to clarify what’s our mission and what are our wins? What are we shooting for? What can we celebrate in the future? And this may sound counterintuitive, but I didn’t lower the bar when I established those wins. I decided I’m going to elevate. I’m going to raise the bar, and I’m going to call the team and the individuals on the team to something greater. And we have to work together to accomplish this if we’re going to see this win. And then I recognized if I want the culture to change, I need to begin to model the key behaviors that I want to see reflected on the team. And I need to begin to put other people into positions of leadership that will model these key behaviors with me. And so there was some transition that needed to happen. I needed to move some people into different roles because I wanted the right people to have the right influence on the rest of the team. And I knew that it was going to take some time. But as I began to model the behaviors that I wanted to see, as we began to put people in leadership that began to model those behaviors as well, over time, there was a culture shift that began to happen. And on the other side of that culture shift, we did accomplish some significant wins. And we started to see that culture was directly connected to the results that we were experiencing. And so with this, I’m going to give you a C-suite role today. I want you to begin to view yourself and your position of leadership as the CCO of your organization, the chief culture officer. And what that means is this. You need to understand, champion, advocate for, protect and model the key behaviors of the culture that you desire. And, Lance, I do. I like how you emphasize certainly in a healthy culture, there are things that we value together, but if you can take it the next step and define, because we value this, this is how we act towards each other. This is how we act towards the people that engage with our organization, our team. That’s what really begins to establish the culture that you’re looking for on your team and in your organization. And in the most high-performing cultures, everyone owns and embodies those key distinctives. Lance, as you’ve worked with lots of teams around the country, what are some common mistakes that you’ve noticed as you’ve worked to craft and articulate a team’s culture?

Lance (21:36):

Yeah, these aren’t just mistakes I’ve noticed, some of these are mistakes I’ve actually made. And the first thing I would say is that there’s a huge difference between nurturing culture and mandating it. In other words, you know, getting away by yourself and coming up with this list and now handing down this edict to the rest of your team isn’t very helpful when it comes to creating a winsome and life-giving culture. Your people have to believe it, absorb it, see it, feel it, hear stories about it, feel inspired by it. Healthy culture is better caught than taught. And so a clear list of leadership behaviors for your team, it does matter and it’s important. But I just want to remind us, that’s not the goal. The goal is not creating a list. The goal is the consistent implementation of these healthy behaviors. So creating culture isn’t just about handing out a list. No. People need to understand the why, and that’s going to take some time. They need to hear compelling stories and see the potential of the kind of culture that you could be. And they need to see what it looks like in everyday life around your team. So if you’re thinking about doing a sort of a ministry culture make-over, let me give you a piece of advice. Don’t just get in a huddle with a few key leaders, come up with the new and improved list of culture behaviors, and then just hand it out to everybody. No. Be inclusive. Be collaborative. Invite input. And then I’d also say don’t create this big fanfare moment as you announce the rollout of the new culture shaping behaviors. I remember reading a few years ago a case study that was done about culture change in a 33-year-old pharmaceutical company called Dr. Reddy’s. They came up with a new purpose statement that had just four words, “Good health can’t wait.” Very simple, very direct, but instead of plastering this new slogan on motivational posters and repeating it in every single meeting, the leadership began the process by simply, quietly beginning to use that statement to guide their own decisions. And the goal was to demonstrate this idea in action, not just plaster it on the wall. So I think those are a few things I would say, but, Tony, what else would you say to leaders when it comes to shaping their team culture?

Tony (24:06):

Yeah, so I alluded to this earlier, but as the leader, you really have to be the change before you see the change in your ministry. And so you have to model this. You need to model the behaviors that you want to shape your culture. You need to model these organizational behaviors, but you also need to model those personal behaviors so that you can begin to see the individuals. They’re seeing from you how they’re going to begin to act towards each other and towards the people that they’re serving. We just have to remember as leaders, our actions either elevate or they errode what we’re trying to build. And so, for example, if we’re trying to create a culture of innovation, we need to encourage people to create, to innovate, to try new things. But when something fails, we can’t power up and get angry and challenge people for why they made mistakes. We need to foster the types of cultures that we’re trying to encourage by modeling how we behave, how we act towards others. So again, Lance, I think this can be a little bit intimidating as leaders, not only to understand the concept of culture but then more specifically to try to figure out intentionally how do we define the culture that we want? So what are some practical steps that you would offer to help maybe us as leaders figure out how do we create shape and then build a healthy culture?

Lance (25:38):

Yeah, I mean, I think that really is the $64,000 question. And so many of the value words that we often talk about, you know, they’re broad, they’re vague, and open to a lot of different interpretation. So I think one really practical challenge is to make sure that your leadership behaviors are clear, concise, and compelling. And I think it’s helpful to define them in more granular terms, like what those value words or behaviors look like in the everyday life of the organization. And if you don’t currently have a set of leadership behaviors, I would suggest making this a collaborative and unhurried exercise with your team. I remember in an interview I did with Rick Holliday from North Point Church in the Atlanta area, he talked about their process of articulating their staff covenant, which is their version of their leadership behaviors. And I remember that he said to me, “We took our time. We spent six months getting input, assessing, articulating, rewriting and creating questions about our leadership behaviors.” Now, obviously they’re a huge organization. It may not take you that amount of time, but I liked slowing down the process because this is not a tactical discussion. You’re not trying to solve a problem. You’re trying to discern and discover the leadership behaviors that are already exist to some degree, but are most likely not articulated and haven’t been written down. And most often, I always say a great place to start is the values and leadership behaviors of senior leadership. So a great question to begin with is to ask, “What really matters to our senior leader or leaders? What are their personal behaviors and values? What do we notice?” And sometimes a good way to discover something you truly value is to ask what makes you pound your fist on the table? Like what makes you angry? What makes you mad? What gets you upset? Because sometimes what causes you to react strongly to a situation is that a value has been violated. So I think those are a few practical things that teams can begin to think about as they think about shaping their culture.

Sean (28:00):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you’re joining this podcast and it’s been helpful for you, we’d love to hear your feedback. Take a minute now and rate and review us on your favorite podcasting platform. At The Unstuck Group, we’re working every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need for your church, we’d love to talk. Start a conversation with us by visiting us at Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

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