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Tone at the Top: The Impact of Words on Culture

Tone at the Top

About 10 years ago, I was working for a Canadian company with a strong leader at the helm. Every year, the sales organization would take a celebratory trip to a warm destination, often Hawaii and it was quite the envy of the rest of the organization. Those in Marketing, Finance or HR were not invited and never would be. As they said in the business, "You're not carrying the bag." The proverbial sales bag. Employees decided that they would complain to the CEO and surely he would stop this preferential treatment and open it up to others, at least those who supported top line sales like Marketing, like Product Development. To his credit, he explained that the Annual Awards trip was open to all, where those who were corporate values role models were recognized. But the coveted sales trip, that was for those responsible for the top line of the business. If an employee really wanted to go on this trip, well, they could join sales, carry the bag, and take the responsibility of bringing in the cash needed to pay everyone else's salaries. We could all buy into this. But then he said in a memo to all employees with email access, "Everyone else can just suck it up."

I certainly could understand the frustration of listening to employees who probably sounded a bit like schoolyard children saying, "No fair, teacher!" But an HR person always observing behaviour and language in the organization, I inhaled deeply when I read it. I braced for what would come next. And sure enough, when people would voice concerns about various projects and initiatives over the coming months, leaders and employees alike would echo these words. Suck it up. Sometimes with the word 'buttercup' on the end. And that became OK even though it is perceived by many to be a belligerent way to speak to colleagues and subordinates. And this is how culture does its two-step shuffle to morph into something new. It's often through our leaders' choice of language.

I thought of this story again recently as I read the flood of commentary on recent political developments south of our border. There is a prominent leader there who says about women that you can 'Grab 'em by the p*$$y,' that publicly made fun of a person with a disability, who refers to Mexican men as 'bad hombres'. He's banned citizens including asylum-seekers from 6 Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

I ask you, what is to come of the American culture when there is a leader who says the following types of outrageous statements? Those with a weaker moral compass will slowly pick it up, they will adopt the language of racism and misogyny and general disrespect of others. Think about the impact of some of these statements coming from the world's most powerful leader:

  • "I backed him. You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees." Said of Mitt Romney during a rally in Portland, Maine, in March 2016.

  • "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot people and not lose voters."

  • "Black guys counting my money? I hate it. The only people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day."

  • "It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!"​

  • "I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist."

  • "One of they key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace. Good people don’t go into government."

  • "The beauty of me is that I’m very rich."

  • "The point is, you can never be too greedy."

If you are a leader in an organization or in your community, or if you are a parent, please choose your words with care. You can unite or you can divide. You can spread collegiality and cooperation, or you can spread disdain and contempt.

Sherry Pedersen-Ajmani is an Organizational Development consultant in Toronto and Principal at Talentcraft. One of her areas of speciality is organizational and culture change. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter @SP_talentcraft.

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