March Madness is here and I love it! We are fortunate to live in a city where some regional games are hosted and my son and I went to two games in the third round of the tournament. The atmosphere was electric. The stands were packed with teams’ family members, fans, and “who’s who” from our city. In the first game we noticed a few things the eventual winning team did on the defensive side of the ball. Instead of just sticking to one kind of defense, they kept changing from zone to man-to-man. They would press, then back off. The eventual losing team did not know what to expect from one offensive possession to another and I think that made the ultimate difference in the game. When they eventually had a ten point lead with three minutes to go, they worked hard to defend that lead regardless of who had the ball. If they were on offense, they stalled as long as they could. If they were on defense, they played tight, but tried not to foul, especially when the other team was shooting. The last thing they needed was to foul a three point shooter, that could really turn things around. My son and I talked about defense on the way home, especially the concept of defending your lead. Sometimes playing defensively can mean timid, just hoping to hold on. Other times when you play to defend your lead you play with every last beat of your heart not to give up important points. Defending your culture at work is much like defending your lead in basketball. You do not want to give up precious advancements that you have made. There are three ways to defend your culture that are similar to defending your lead: Reject, Redeem, and Release.

When you have a lead in basketball and you foul an opposing player, you work against yourself. The key to winning when you have the lead is to let the clock run out. Fouling not only stops the clock, it gives the other team a chance to score points without the clock running. Teams need to absolutely reject the idea of fouling late in the game when they have the lead. When it comes to defending your work culture, there are things that should be rejected, absolutely not tolerated. The thing that will stop the clock when you have the lead is negativity. A negative spirit in your culture will work against your team. This illustration made it clear to me.Take a friend and ask him to stand on a chair next to you, preferably a chair without rollers! Grab his hand and try to pull him down without him doing anything. Pretty easy for the most part. Now, try and have him pull you up on the chair without you helping, nearly impossible. It is far easier to pull someone down, then to lift them up. Negativity can pull the whole team down. Find the root of it and find a way to pull it out.

In one of the games we watched on TV we witnessed one of the star players on the eventual winning team make a mistake at a critical point in the game. He just lost control of the ball when he was going to shoot. It could happen to anyone and while playing in a pick-up game and on the playground you brush it off and move on. But in a huge game on a national stage it is harder to brush it off. The problem is that whether or not you brush it off, the game moves on. The longer you are in the game and haven’t brushed it off, the worse it is for you and for your team. His teammates who sensed his emotion were relentless in their encouragement. Two plays later, with his head in the game, he blocked a shot, ran down the court to take part in a beautiful alley-oop slam dunk. The energy from that dunk redeemed him completely. In our work culture, we have to put failure into perspective. Imagine if every time someone on the team at work made a mistake and got down on themselves, the whole team around them relentlessly encouraged them until they were able to redeem themselves. Any single failure looked at in the wrong context can take the whole team down, it has that much power and significance. Look for opportunities to allow people to redeem themselves and train the team to relentlessly encourage those who fail or make mistakes.

Finally there are just some things that need to be released. They were ok for one season, but not for another. I am sure that North Carolina built a whole strategy around Michael Jordan when he played for them in college. The strategy at the time allowed them to best take advantage of his skill and win a national championship. Today, a strategy built around Michael Jordan would absolutely not work for North Carolina. What works in one season may not work in another, some things need to be released and some things need to be reinforced. Principles and foundational characteristics rarely change and need to be reinforced. Core values in a culture at work come to mind here. Regardless of the times, honesty, unity, integrity, and transparency will always be a part of the culture I am leading. As far as I am concerned, those core values are non-negotiable. There are other things that work for a while then need to be changed. How do you recognize or reward good employees? When a staff member gets recognized in writing by another staff member, we try to make a big deal about that. How exactly you do that may change from season to season depending on what is popular at the time but the fact that you do it should be a part of your organization. Twenty years ago gift cards were not a huge deal, today a $20 gift card is fun to receive and is very much a part of the culture in our country. What practices need to be released and/or replaced in your organization? As time goes by, some practices and rituals can get stale. It might be time for something new.

The next time you are with your leadership team or just having lunch with some peers at work, consider with them what needs to be rejected in your culture that is currently being tolerated. Chris wrote last week about meeting management, that is a good place to start. Move to thinking about what or who needs to be redeemed from a mistake. Bring more people in on this discussion and try to build a culture and team that relentlessly encourages. Conclude with what is just no longer working. What was good for a time is not for another. Managing a culture is not a one and done event. It takes constant oversight, incredible amounts of vulnerability, and to really see people grow it takes a servants heart. As a leader, be relentless about asking for feedback from your team members, they will tell you if you listen what needs to be rejected, redeemed, or renewed. The team who loses just one game in the tournament is done for the year. The abrupt end is really part of the charm of march madness. Lets leave that charm to the NCAA and not let it be a part of your organization. One bad play does not make a bad game. Several bad plays, left unchecked, will end your season. Take the time to look at your culture and see what needs to be changed.

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