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Cultivating Organizational Culture: A New Approach
Director of Organizational Development Chris Fairbank introduces WE CARE—a model for leaders that focuses on what makes their teams unique so they can enhance and sustain a stronger organizational culture.

Your actions define our culture


e have something special here. It takes years for an organization’s culture to shape and evolve through experience and trials, and over time, ours has become something that would be difficult to replicate. We see some hard evidence of this as we compare ourselves to other organizations. For the 11th consecutive year, we are in Vizient’s Top 10 in Quality for both inpatient and ambulatory care. Our employee engagement marks are above the 90th percentile in comparison to other health care organizations. Our team members are regularly recognized in the community due to the great work they do here. Many employees describe their experience working here as uniquely positive. Over time our culture has become strong, and we want it to not only continue, but to become stronger.  

An organization’s culture is defined as how its members “do things.” It’s the collective actions and behaviors of all of us as individuals that are shaped by our values, intentions, and attitudes. Cultures usually take time to change, but severe circumstances can cause a culture to shift dramatically within a short time. Throughout this pandemic, health care organizations have been squeezed to the point that stress and burnout have increased significantly. When we are stressed, the likelihood that negative behaviors will surface is much greater. Over time, if we don’t work to address the source of our stress and burnout to prevent those negative behaviors, our culture will suffer.  

Well before the recent pandemic, a group of leaders came together to start thinking more proactively about our culture. This group jokingly called itself “The Culture Club,” and we recognized that our culture would flex and shift whether we wanted it to or not. We decided early on that if we were to have a positive impact on our culture, we would first need to define and measure it. Work began to develop a model that defined not only the culture we currently have, but the culture we would need in place to see continued success.

Over many iterations and much feedback, our “WE CARE” model of culture was developed.
WE CARE is a model that allows leaders to focus on the things that make our culture unique as they lead their teams. In many ways, the focus areas of WE CARE are the next logical step with our PROMISE standards. If the PROMISE standards help us understand how we should behave as individuals, WE CARE helps us understand what it should look like as we behave as groups, teams, departments, and organizations.   

WE CARE for ourselves

Wellbeing – Some find it strange when a flight attendant describes the process of placing the oxygen mask on oneself first in case of an emergency. It can seem counterintuitive to the idea of helping those you care about who might be traveling with you. Over time, many of us have learned that in order to take care of those who matter most, we need to take care of ourselves. We see this idea play out not just at work, but in all aspects of life. When we have our immediate needs met, we are in a much better position to meet the needs of those around us. This is the core idea behind wellbeing.  

Engagement – There is enormous power when we are actively engaged in the work we do. Gallup defines engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” Engaged employees are more likely to behave in ways that have a positive impact on our culture. They are more likely to go above and beyond for the patient and coworkers, and they tend to be more optimistic and open to working collaboratively with others. An organization full of engaged team members will accomplish great things. 

WE CARE for others

Collaboration – As individuals, we can only accomplish so much. It’s through working together that we can reach new heights. This means not only working with each other within our own teams and departments, but across teams and departments as well. COVID-19 has required us to come together in ways that we haven’t in the past, resulting in many examples of collaboration to overcome challenges and obstacles. As an organization, we want to continue this high level of collaboration, even beyond our current situation.

Respect – How we treat each other matters. We are a relationship-oriented culture, which comes with some pros and cons. On the positive side, we value our working relationships and the trust that comes with them. The negative side shows up as we try to work through our differences that inevitably surface. As human beings, we tend to feel most comfortable with those who are similar to ourselves. However when we make an effort to reach out to those who we perceive to be different from us, we often find that they are more like us than we may have recognized.  

WE CARE for our community

Accountability – In order for us to serve our community, we need to ensure we are doing our work well. This means maintaining our high standards of quality through a process of setting clear expectations, supporting people as they do their work, and giving each other feedback so that we can become better. Because culture is a collective result of many individual behaviors, the idea of accountability is critically important to keeping our culture strong. Negative cultures are typically the result of someone’s poor behavior that went unchecked for too long, and spread to others over time. In fact, it’s often said that an organization’s culture is defined by the worst behavior that is allowed to continue.  

Excellence – A culture of learning is a hallmark of strong organizations. You can learn much about a work group by observing how it handles mistakes. An environment of continuous improvement means learning from the mistakes we make as opposed to pointing fingers at individuals. This allows people to feel safe bringing up concerns, problems, or issues in the future. As we create this sort of culture within our teams, we can then turn to our people for improvement ideas. The best ideas will usually come from those who are doing the work. This concept is particularly important to our culture of safety.  

For each one of these areas, leaders play a critical role in building and sustaining our culture. For example, new employees coming into our organization will be looking to their leaders for answers to questions such as:

  • How do we communicate with each other?

  • How do we treat others outside of our immediate work group?

  • How do we respond to mistakes?

  • Will people be held accountable for things they do and say?

  • Is this the sort of place where I can care of my own needs, or am I expected to brush them aside for the sake of the work?

When people receive answers that are consistently in line with the culture we strive for, leaders will contribute to the strong culture that we know we need.  

As we work to address our culture in a more proactive way, we will develop materials and programs that will support leaders and staff. Keep an eye out for more ideas, resources, and tools to help you create and sustain a WE CARE culture.  


Chris Fairbank

Director, Organizational Development, University of Utah Health

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