The Ultimate Culture Builder

As our Culture Killer Series comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about culture builders.

We’ve already talked through many of them—appreciation, hope, curiosity. But it occurred to me that all of these culture builders have one thing in common:

Tough conversations.

Stay with me…

I was actually a conflict-avoider for many years. Until I had the heart realization: There is no pathway to healthy relationships that doesn’t pass through conflict.

When I realized that truth, my mindset changed. I started to feel that I would rather risk awkwardness and temporary dissonance during tough conversations than have shallow relationships in life. I would rather risk conflict than never enjoy being deeply connected to a community.

I believe in the same idea for the workplace:

A healthy work culture is not a conflict-free culture. A healthy culture is a culture in which people are equipped to have tough conversations together.

The thing is, tough conversations DO NOT have to be the terrifying, anxiety-inducing scenarios we imagine them to be. There are strategies for having tough conversations that are good—strategies that any leader in any industry can deploy with focused intention and a little bit of courage.

Feedback: “Less Formal, More Frequent”

The reason why tough conversations are so terrifying for most employers and employees is because feedback is the weird thing that happens every few months, or once a year, in an annual review.

Feedback has to stop meaning that.

Typical feedback conversations feel terrible because they’re so infrequent, meaning employees come to the conversation not knowing where they stand.

If your employee is getting a shot of cortisol every time your name shows up on caller ID—because they only get a call when something is wrong—that’s a problem.

But when feedback is less formal and more frequent (aka daily, weekly, and filled with appreciation)...

  • Employees always know where they stand, which helps them feel secure and confident.

  • The regular, appreciative feedback builds social capital, trust, and support.

  • That history of trust and support makes corrective feedback more comfortable. Still tough, but much easier because proportionately, you’ve created a POSITIVE history of feedback: more regular, less formal; more appreciative, less corrective. Your people know: This isn’t about blame or shame.

Get on the front end of conflict. Check in. And you’ll change the nature of the feared feedback conversation.

Accountability: It Goes All Ways, Always.

There will come a time for corrective feedback. And when it comes, the decision to engage will be a crucial culture-builder.

For example:

It’s easy to state the company values. But if a leader doesn’t speak up when those values are disregarded, then the culture killer of cynicism sets in. Everyone in the workplace sees, and even if the values are solid, they know: there won’t be follow-through. The claim to workplace culture-building is b.s.

Or say someone is shamed for making a mistake. Or someone is continuously expressing negativity about a coworker or boss. Or someone is consistently missing deadlines. If no one is willing to inquire and ask the ‘tough’ questions, it says that no one cares. And that’s a problem.

The alternative to this passivity, silence, and conflict avoidance? Accountability.

When accountability comes from every person, always...

  • You refuse to let inconsistencies fester. You trade major systemic, down-the-road conflict for a little bit of discomfort now. You start the conversation.

  • You use non-condemning language, like ‘I’ve noticed…’ or ‘It seems like…’ or ‘I’ve been wondering...’

  • You give your coworker a chance to correct or explain, thanks to third-person storytelling: ‘Now I have this story about what happened when you made that comment in the meeting. It seemed like there was an edge and the energy of the room changed after that. What was your experience?’

In a healthy workplace culture, when you observe actions that undermine relationships and harm culture, accountability is the crucial, courageous response.

End Game: What Gets You Through

Ultimately, we all need something greater than the fear of conflict to motivate us through those conflict conversations.

What is the motivation in you that could be stronger than the fear of a hard conversation?

I’m not talking about theoretical purpose, like ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘being a good leader.’’ I’m talking about tapping into what you love. I’m talking about why you do your job in the first place. (For clients of mine, it’s been things like “enhancing patient care for everyone.” It turns out you need coworkers—aka real, healthy relationships—in order to accomplish that.)

If you really want to work in a culture of hope, you’re going to have to address the places where there’s cynicism and despair. If you want a culture that’s characterized by growth mindset, you’re going to have to point it out when people get shamed.

So take a deep breath and remember what is stronger than your fear.

And as you open your mouth to speak, just know:

This awkward, dissonant, tough work is your best investment

—in a culture worth fighting for.     

Thanks so much for following the Culture Killer Series. I hope it continues to provide encouragement and some ideas for starting to shift and enrich your workplace. Don’t hesitate to reach out with YOUR feedback, stories, and questions. (


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at