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4 Agreements to Transform Company Culture

In 1997 a Toltec shaman named Don Miguel Ruiz published The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

Many advocates for change in company culture don’t understand a fundamental truth. Or, this truth is buried deep in their cortex and continues to surface in different ways, but they haven’t framed it yet. They haven’t given it a name and formalized it in a way that allows for examination and action.

Aren’t recognition, categorization, and ‘actionable’ steps what we do regularly in the business world? Is this process flawed? Does it leave enough room for exciting, instinctual leaps?

Any attempt to make a summation, a concept, a program of change out of a philosophical viewpoint can be dangerous. It can leave out room for instinct or it can be a risky stab in the dark. But if you want change, embrace danger and understand the Four Agreements—which get at the core of change. The best leaders and the best businesses make change happen.

A side-note: at first I was skeptical. Motivational speaking and writing is mostly abhorrent. Anytime someone tells you, ‘this is the way to promote change! Here’s how you fix problems,’ a red flag should pop up. If we don’t question what we’re told, we could end up towing a lot of false lines. But here’s what’s intriguing: the Four Agreements take skepticism into account and even encourage it.

Anytime someone tells you, ‘this is the way to promote change! Here’s how you fix problems,’ a red flag should pop up.

The Four Agreements are about intent. The fundamental truth is simple: intent guides us. Analyzing the reasons why we do what we do, analyzing our intent, enables us to change company culture for the better. What is each person’s intent within and without the workplace? How is intent affecting workplace culture?

The Four Agreements teach us:

1. Be impeccable with your word

The Agreements stem from an agreement you make with yourself. You agree to work towards understanding who you are and what you value, outside of what you’ve been trained to value. At a young age you’re trained to value carrots (rewards) and despise sticks (punishments). In order for your word to be unimpeachable, you can’t base what you say around getting rewards and avoiding punishments.

We’re trained to value rewards as children. We are in the workplace, too. This explains the 93% who report lying “regularly and habitually” at work. If we value ourselves and our word as an extension of ourselves, we won’t waste our word on lies. We won’t value the short-term reward a lie achieves; we’ll value our presence in a place, where an impeccable word achieves a long-term state of real value to those around us.

2. Don’t take anything personally

Speaking of those around us, we’re in the midst of a social interactivity boom. Business is out there, interacting socially on the internet in a way it never has before. The term social media has dollar signs hanging from its belt.

The social realm is personal, and it’s where you take things personally. But now, you are so fully invested in your products and services you are venturing your business into the social world. You’re prepared to reap the benefits this world has to offer. But you’re also putting yourself on the line, where people can pick at you and wear you down.

Salesforce’s Cesar Arreola recommends embracing customer dissatisfaction and complaints. Enter fully unashamed into the barrage. The customer’s problem with what you do is a chance not only to solve the problem but to build a relationship.

The customer’s problem with what you do is a chance not only to solve the problem but to build a relationship

You agree not to take the customer’s complaint personally. In fact, their complaint has nothing to do with you. To believe their problem reflects on you is a form of narcissism. Their complaint is entirely based on their own agreements, their own internal reckoning of what is and isn’t important.

Your word is impeccable, and that’s important to you. So, your interactions do not hinge on what you think others think of you. Interactions with people (employees and customers alike) hinge on, and are anchored by, the impeccability of your word.

3. Don’t make assumptions

Again, this is about being impeccable with your word. In order for this to happen, communication must be open.

When your word and its intent are impeccable, you know it. But you can’t assume you know anything else. Doing so creates a rift in communication and invites stereotypes.

But you can’t assume you know anything else. Doing so creates a rift in communication and invites stereotypes.

If you assume you know what is good for your employees and your customers, you missed out on the chance to actually determine what is. If you assume you know the answer to a problem but aren’t quite clear on the cause, you missed out on the crux. If you don’t ask questions, you’re worried someone might label you unintelligent and uninformed.

We predicate assumptions on certain groups. It’s a failure of communication. A poll of 1,000 millennials revealed some of the major assumptions people make about them are wrong. We may think they like to text, but only fourteen percent prefer it. We may think they like to job-hop, but eighty percent expect their career to consist of four or less employers. The business that doesn’t assume anything about millennials will be fully prepared to accept them and benefit from that acceptance.

4. Do your best  

You’ve been told this from the get-go, but it was under the old agreement, in which doing your best meant some sort of reward. But did you really care for the carrot? It’s probably sitting in a dusty corner somewhere if you haven’t already given it away.

Under the new agreement, you are doing your best to practice mindfulness. The act itself is the reward, and you agree to be fully in the act experiencing sensations and noting your emotional reactions. There’s a reason Michael Jordan’s tongue stuck out when he was making a play. There’s a reason a dog sticks its head out the window of a car. All the better for feeling the air fly by.

The fundamental truth  

Workplace cultural change comes with each person agreeing to examine their intent. You’re agreeing to be skeptical of your motives and any policy that assigns false value. You agree to value yourself qua yourself. From there, your value extends outward and around, encompassing the entire organization.

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Daniel Matthews is a freelance writer and introvert who specializes in careful analysis, communication, and culture. A firm believer in the power of the written word, his mission is to help people think differently about the world, but he's also a firm believer in not taking himself too seriously.

  • Culture of an organization affects the development of its leadership. Effective culture creates and builds the vision of an agency’s future. Vision can develop and move forward as the leader assembles a culture that is devoted to supporting that vision.

    • Daniel Matthews

      Good point, Vinay. I take it you are saying the cultivation of culture is a symbiotic relationship between and organization and its leadership?

      • Sorry for being late on this, but a big YES. Culture and Leadership are two necessary growth drivers for company to walk in the long run and it has to be mutual, one which can be agreed and followed.

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