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The one question that reveals a truly collaborative culture


Effective collaboration comes down to culture.

There’s one simple question that can reveal a whole lot about an organization’s culture:

How is asking for help seen in this organization?

Take some time to reflect on this question, and I think you’ll see why it’s so revealing. Is asking for help seen as a sign of weakness? Are people punished for admitting that they are struggling to keep up with their workload, don’t understand something, or need more support? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you’re dealing with a weak or even toxic culture.

When people can’t be honest about their struggles, they can’t be open and authentic with their colleagues. When they can’t get help if they need it, they will be reluctant to take on more assignments. They’ll avoid responsibility as much as possible, looking to score easy wins that will make them look good rather than digging into harder, more complicated projects.

Ultimately, you can’t force people to collaborate if your organization’s culture doesn’t truly support taking risks, being open about struggles, and connecting authentically with colleagues.


Cooperative, supportive cultures allow people to be at their best.

As I wrote in my book, Accountable Leaders, I’ve spent years asking people around the world what kind of organizational culture would enable them to be at their best. And the answers I’ve gotten have been remarkably consistent. Overwhelmingly, people tell me they’ll thrive in a culture where leaders have clarity about what they’re expected to deliver; where leaders are committed to being their best; and where leaders genuinely trust and support one another.

I call this kind of culture a community of leaders, and I’ve identified 10 key characteristics of this kind of strong, supportive community, including:

  • Leaders demonstrate resilience and resolve in the face of adversity.
  • Leaders create excitement about the future.
  • Leaders support one another; they have each other’s backs.
  • Leaders keep internal politics and personal agendas to a minimum.
  • Leaders lead with a united front and a one-company mindset.

Unfortunately, many cultures fall short of this ideal. Check out the full list of 10 characteristics of a community of leaders and see how your organization measures up.


If reaching out is punished, people won’t keep trying for long.

An unhealthy culture can undermine even the best efforts to break down silos, connect, and collaborate. Every parent or teacher knows that behavior that is rewarded will continue. So if people in your organization are rewarded for protecting their turf, pushing work onto other people’s plates, and cultivating an appearance of strength, that’s what they’ll do.

On the other hand, if people are genuinely rewarded for tackling the hard work, even if they fail, they will be willing to stretch themselves. If asking for help is seen as a sign of honesty and responsibility, and people who ask for help are rewarded by getting the support they need, people will be more willing to connect with their colleagues, open up about what’s hard, and work together to find solutions.


Start with your own experiences.

Before you push your team to reach out and do the hard work of building relationships, check in with your own experience. What types of behavior have you seen be rewarded or punished in your organization? What is your own reaction when someone on your team asks for help? How strong are your own relationships? Are you comfortable reaching out to a leader on another team for help?

As a leader, you should model community-building for your team. That means rewarding the types of positive, supportive, collaborative behavior you want to encourage—and refusing to reward go-it-alone superstars who aren’t willing to pitch in and help colleagues when they need it.

It’s also your responsibility to pave the way for your team to do great collaborative work by connecting with other team leaders. In today’s complex organizations, your team will often need information, support, or resources from members of other teams to do their best work. As a leader, you have a huge role to play in helping build those cross-team relationships.


About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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