Three culture questions my clients always ask me

Colin Ellis
5 min readMay 10, 2023


I get to work around the world with all sorts of different companies and cultures — from FMCG, finance and fashion to start-ups, sport and software development. Very different businesses, very different ways of doing things. And yet…in these unique and diverse cultures there will be some common threads that I recognise, pick at and start to unravel to truly understand the culture and what’s required to make it vibrant.

The people I work with also have many things in common. They all show up each day to do a good job and they get frustrated by the things that stand in their way, from onerous red tape and meeting overwhelm to poor behaviour (that’s ignored) and a reluctance to stop and celebrate success. These people are committed to developing culture and use influence to sell their vision.

When I’m helping these cultures I spend a lot of time listening and these are the three questions I get asked time and again by my clients (along with my answers of course, or this would be a very short blog!):

1. How can I justify taking people away from their work to define the culture?

The quick answer is: how can you not? Culture is the foundation for all that you’re looking to achieve, whether it’s improved service, achievement of sales targets, hitting project deadlines or higher product quality. None of these things are possible without a great culture, but it doesn’t just magically make itself vibrant!

Teams have to deliberately define what good looks like so that they can hold themselves to the promises that they’ve made each other. There is no shortcut to this process, nor can you hope that it will naturally evolve into something great… it won’t. You have to take time out — free from distractions — to do this.

Yet still, I completely understand the question. As a former manager myself, whenever I told my boss that I was taking my team offsite for two full days to work on culture (which I did!) they always made me feel like I was compromising productivity or spending money unnecessarily, when the opposite was true.

So I talk about previous culture experiences that I’ve run, what it took to get them approved or provide strategies on how to communicate them so that people fully understand the value on offer.

I insist on senior leadership attendance at my programs, keynotes and so on too, because if they can’t find the time to show up and demonstrate how important this is to the business, why would anyone else? It is vital that leaders role model the behaviours they want to see in the culture.

To set the workshop up for success, we’ll do some advance work around expectation setting so everyone knows what is happening, why and when — and, importantly, what is required of them as participants.

Often there will be an interactive element to the work, such as a personality profiling or a culture survey so that people are already engaged and committed before the day starts. Many of them are even excited about the experience! And then it’s my job to ensure everyone is fully engaged throughout and leaves with a sense of forward momentum.

And even though their task lists won’t reduce whilst people are off site, the number of emails will (because everyone is in the room) freeing up time to catch up!

2. The organisation can’t decide who’s responsible for culture — who is?

Everyone is responsible for the culture they are a part of. But there are nuances to this.

Leaders set the tone, middle managers hold people accountable and individuals need to show up every day with the intention of being their best selves and contributing positively to the work that needs to get done.

Whilst leaders set the tone for culture, that doesn’t mean that they get to dictate it; this is often a mistake that’s made. For a culture to be truly diverse and inclusive it needs to incorporate all that’s good about what exists today as well as the ideas that everyone has in order to build something that everyone can feel connected to tomorrow. If the leaders take it upon themselves to define the culture and cascade it down, should it be ‘wrong’ everyone will go over the cliff and they’ll end up losing the people they need to change it in the future.

Leaders then need to ensure that managers have the skills to apply this consistently within their departments or teams, such that silos aren’t created. This middle management layer is crucial to the evolution of culture. Leaders set the tone, managers make it happen.

Even then, the culture will only be as good as the bad behaviour it is willing to ignore. Whilst this sounds like a leadership or a management responsibility, in truth it’s something everyone needs to feel safe and empowered to speak up about. This then has to be actioned to prove to everyone that culture is something that we do, and not just talk about.

3. Since the pandemic, trust and connection is at an all time low. What can we do about it?

This is a very real problem for many organisations today and for some it existed prior to the pandemic.

When the connection and trust between team members is low it impacts motivation, collaboration, innovation and ultimately performance. It is most damaging in cultures where the conversation of when, where and how work gets done has not been had in an honest and open way.

Hybrid working is a radically new approach to getting work done and there needs to be structure to this experiment, similarly If you’re providing greater flexibility of hours, days or workplace.

Clear expectations need to be set about behaviour, collaboration around the communication you expect of each other on the days when team members are not in the office, but it is not OK to assume that because someone is not visible they are not working. I’ve written before about how trust lives in the micro-experiences we have everyday and that’s true whether you are in the office or working remotely.

When it comes to connection, if your team was co-located previously and are not getting together in person now, then connection and collaboration will likely take a hit. As great as the technology is, nothing can replicate human-to-human relationships, and some work will always be best done face-to-face.

Similarly, people will need quiet time to focus on critical deliverables and there is no need to be in a loud office environment, for the sake of it, to finish these tasks.

When teams take the time to build a culture that keeps them connected to each other it is very easy to assume the best of each other, than the worst and this trust is the glue that will hold performance together.

Do you recognise your culture in any of these questions? What question would you like to ask?



Colin Ellis

Global culture consultant | Best-selling Author | Keynote Speaker | Podcaster | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot