People-first cultures are characterized by organizations that prioritize values, offer equitable compensation and benefits, embrace diversity and inclusion, and foster opportunities for employee growth and development. Leaders within these organizations place a high emphasis on considering the well-being and perspectives of their employees when engaging in communication, interactions, and decision-making processes.

The question of whether an organization’s culture or its leaders’ actions come first in establishing a people-centric environment is a complex one. Leaders may assume that they are protected by the overarching people-centric nature of the organization. However, in reality, the aggregate of every single interaction, decision, and communication from each leader contributes to whether an organization is truly perceived as people-centric. Through my experience as an executive coach, I have observed an intriguing phenomenon: even in companies that claim to possess the attributes of putting people first, leaders often engage in behaviors that contradict this notion.

For instance, consider a senior executive who consistently uses vulgar language or an angry tone during meetings with their peers or team members. This behavior, while perhaps unintentional or a result of stress, can undermine the organization’s efforts to foster a respectful and inclusive environment. Such actions can make employees feel uncomfortable, devalued, and even threatened, leading to a breakdown in trust and psychological safety.

It is the seemingly inconsequential interactions or minor decisions where individuals’ feelings are not taken into account that can convey a message at the managerial level that is inconsistent with the organization’s intended culture. These discrepancies create a significant amount of mistrust, erode psychological safety, and ultimately have financial consequences in the form of reduced performance, increased turnover, and lower levels of engagement. My client shared with me that there is a saying in Spanish that references sandcastles: “Why would you build a sandcastle with your hands while kicking it out with your feet?” If we are building a sandcastle with our hands and kicking it out with our feet, we are wasting effort and will have to keep rebuilding. Similarly, when leaders engage in behaviors that contradict the people-first culture they are trying to establish, they are effectively undermining their own efforts and will need to continuously work to repair the damage caused by their actions.

Just as surface tension holds together the grains of sand in a sandcastle, shared values, beliefs, and norms act as the binding force that holds together the individuals within an organization’s culture. When the surface tension in a sandcastle is disrupted, the sand grains lose their cohesion, and the castle begins to crumble. In the same way, when an organization’s shared values and beliefs are undermined or neglected, the culture starts to erode, leading to a breakdown in trust, collaboration, and ultimately, the organization’s stability.

In conclusion, while organizations may strive to establish people-first cultures, it is the everyday actions and decisions of leaders at all levels that truly shape the reality of the workplace environment. Leaders must remain cognizant of the impact of their behaviors, as even seemingly small actions can have far-reaching consequences on the trust, psychological safety, and overall performance of their employees. It is crucial for senior executives to lead by example, ensuring that their communication style and behavior align with the values and principles of a people-centric organization. By understanding and nurturing these cohesive forces, leaders can intentionally build and maintain a strong, resilient culture that supports success.