The Importance of Implied Culture

I played football at Albion College in the early to mid-90s. One of the things that I found interesting about those teams was that we never had any explicitly stated mottos, slogans, or team names. We weren’t Team 92, Team 93, etc.

But if you asked for a story that defined our team, or if you asked what our motto could be, or if you watched the way we got after our practices and games, to a man our implied motto could have been stated something like this: We are a rising program that is going to win a national championship.

From the moment we toured campus as high school student-athletes, the upperclassmen started talking about this belief. They told stories about a loss to a former national champion in which we had come back from 21 down to force overtime. They told stories about the great will the team and its individual players had shown in recent years. They invited us to join them.

Our coaches shared this vision, they never demanded it specifically. It became part of our culture because the players believed in it and talked about it without prompting.  It wasn’t explicitly stated anywhere, but it was implied everywhere. It was within every mode of communication that existed.

It’s not that it couldn’t have been explicitly stated. It could have been. It simply did not need to be explicitly stated because it was already etched in our hearts and minds.

What created this culture? It wasn’t just one thing. It wasn’t on t-shirts. It wasn’t printed on a board in the locker room. We didn’t decide it at a team summit. No leadership group provided it for us. It was grown from from the inside-out from each of us in the program. It was inside every one of us implied in every type of interaction and communication throughout every single day. If you are a regular reader of my articles, you know that I believe we all connected so strongly because it was in each of us already. Nobody can plant an idea in you, and even if they point in a certain direction, no idea will take root if your mind isn’t already fertile for its cultivation.

The thing is, I don’t believe it had to go this way for us. The 100 or more players and coaches could have taken the culture in many directions, but this was one possibility that existed for us. It developed so strongly because of relentless pointing in the same direction. Even with the graduation of our greatest senior class ever, the belief didn’t die and actually came to fruition in the following season. In what was supposed to be a down year for us, we went 13-0 and won the DIII National Championship.

If we believed that the dream were imposed from the outside, we could have very well given up on it when the seniors of that class graduated. Thankfully, we understood that the dream was always present within us. It wasn’t imposed by those seniors. They simply invited us to join them. For us to be a part of it, it had to be within us too. This is the value of teaching culture the correct way. No illusion of outside force is present. In a strong implied culture, we are clear in our beliefs, actions, and roles within the culture.

Keep in mind, explicit tools of culture aren’t bad, but they aren’t good either. They are simply neutral. The implied culture is what actually exists, because the importance of an implied culture tool is in the eye of the beholder. Implied cultural tools are incredibly strong because they honor our inside-out nature and do not point in the confusing direction that some explicit tools seem to.

Explicit signs can be important, but it is always up to the individual to make sense of them, which is where the danger lies too.  When explicit signs of culture don’t match what actually happens, they became punchlines to a sad joke, contradictions to what actually exists.

Why are implied cultures so strong? Implicit cultures are so strong because they seem to communicate the message: I’m going to show you what we are all about, and I invite you to join us. Our inside-out natures match better with invites than they do with demands. The strength of implicit messages are also derived from the understanding that our actions speak louder than our words.

When you look at the teams and organizations you are a part of (don’t be limiting here, think team, work organization, school, community, and most importantly, family), what is the true, implied culture that is pointed to everywhere? I know families who claim to care about each other, but then they yell and threaten when things don’t go the “leaders” way. What is the true implied culture in that group?

If you constantly show negative reactions, no amount of happy sayings on decorative wooden blocks are going to save you. It doesn’t work that way. We connect from the inside-out, and all of us have many potentials within us. The importance and strength of a culture is contained in the implied beliefs, not the explicit ones.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Implied Culture

  1. One of the sayings here where I work is “Moving at the Speed of Business”, which has become, to me at least, one of those very punchlines you mention. “Speed of Business” to me now implies a snail’s pace. There is a culture here, that has worked for a very long time, because for a very long time business moved at a relatively slow, but consistent pace. Technology-based companies and Amazon in particular have made being slow and consistent a quaint notion. Sometimes both explicit culture and implicit culture need to be disrupted.

    In somewhat contrast to your experience at Albion, when I started at Northwestern our football team was not good. We students went to the games for the tailgates. But the year before, Coach Barnett had come in with a new culture altogether- “Expect Victory”. The man had our field goal posts double-reinforced so that the first time we went out to tear them down we students couldn’t get them down. We bent the hell out of them anyway, so they had to be replaced, but Coach Barnett made it known that the student body should expect victory every bit as much as the players on the team. It wasn’t long before we did, which culminated in a trip to the Rose Bowl before I had graduated.

    Coach Collins has brought that same attitude to the basketball team now. That team expects to beat the Big Ten powerhouses like Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. In both cases of the teams’ turnarounds, I wouldn’t say we get significantly better players, but both Coach Fitz and Coach Collins recruit young men who are going to buy into the culture they’ve created.


    1. Rice, love the thoughts. I like the examples of explicit culture that Barnett, Fitz, and Collins have brought. I bet their implied culture matches. If it didn’t, the culture wouldn’t point in the same powerful direction. Sort of a like a laser, if that analogy works. If pointing in multiple directions, the “light” is more diffuse and weak.


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