[One would find very detailed commentaries on the subject of correlating the organizational leadership with the organizational culture. In order to remain within the scope of our present series, I have picked up three representative articles here to briefly touch the subject, and in the process, laying foundation for linking it up with their relationship with the sustained success later in the series.]
Leaders play a significant role in shaping and maintenance of the culture in an organization. It is in the leadership process that the effect of culture becomes most perceptible. If it is the leadership that mobilizes attention towards a new vision, it is the corporate culture that confers legitimacy on that vision. Thus, it can be said that leadership and organizational culture are strongly intertwined and share a symbiotic relationship.
Strategy and culture are among the primary levers at top leaders’ disposal in their never-ending quest to maintain organizational viability and effectiveness. Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms. Of the two, culture, however, is a more elusive lever, because much of it is anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns.
Leaders may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails. It doesn’t have to be that way. Culture can, in fact, be managed. The first and most important step leaders can take to maximize its value and minimize its risks is to become fully aware of how it works.
Attributes of organizational culture
In order to understand the organizational culture, one approach is to understand four generally accepted attributes:
- Shared – Culture is a group phenomenon. It cannot exist solely within a single person, nor is it simply the average of individual characteristics. It resides in shared behaviors, values, and assumptions and is commonly experienced through the unwritten norms and expectations of a group.
- Pervasive – Culture permeates multiple levels and applies very broadly in an organization; sometimes it is even conflated with the organization itself. It is manifest in collective behaviors, physical environments, group rituals, visible symbols, stories, and legends. Other aspects of culture are unseen, such as mindsets, motivations, unspoken assumptions, and what David Rooke and William Torbert refer to as “action logics” (mental models of how to interpret and respond to the world around you).
- Enduring – Culture can direct the thoughts and actions of group members over the long term. It develops through critical events in the collective life and learning of a group. Its endurance is explained in part by the attraction-selection-attrition model first introduced by Benjamin Schneider: People are drawn to organizations with characteristics similar to their own; organizations are more likely to select individuals who seem to “fit in”; and over time those who don’t fit in tend to leave. Thus, culture becomes a self-reinforcing social pattern that grows increasingly resistant to change and outside influences.
- Implicit – An important and often overlooked aspect of culture is that despite its subliminal nature, people are effectively hardwired to recognize and respond to it instinctively. It acts as a kind of silent language. Shalom Schwartz and E.O. Wilson have shown through their research how evolutionary processes shaped human capacity; because the ability to sense and respond to culture is universal, certain themes should be expected to recur across the many models, definitions, and studies in the field.
Understanding the organizational culture
Two primary dimensions that apply regardless of organization type, size, industry, or geography: people interactions and response to change. Understanding a company’s culture requires determining where it falls along these two dimensions.
- People interactions – An organization’s orientation toward people interactions and coordination will fall on a spectrum from highly independent to highly interdependent.
- Response to change – Whereas some cultures emphasize stability—prioritizing consistency, predictability, and maintenance of the status quo—others emphasize flexibility, adaptability, and receptiveness to change.
By applying this fundamental insight about the dimensions of people interactions and response to change, eight styles that apply to both organizational cultures and individual leaders can be identified.
Caring focuses on relationships and mutual trust. Work environments are warm, collaborative, and welcoming places where people help and support one another. Employees are united by loyalty; leaders emphasize sincerity, teamwork, and positive relationships.
Purpose is exemplified by idealism and altruism. Work environments are tolerant, compassionate places where people try to do good for the long-term future of the world. Employees are united by a focus on sustainability and global communities; leaders emphasize shared ideals and contributing to a greater cause.
Learning is characterized by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity. Work environments are inventive and open-minded places where people spark new ideas and explore alternatives. Employees are united by curiosity; leaders emphasize innovation, knowledge, and adventure.
Enjoyment is expressed through fun and excitement. Work environments are light-hearted places where people tend to do what makes them happy. Employees are united by playfulness and stimulation; leaders emphasize spontaneity and a sense of humour.
Results is characterized by achievement and winning. Work environments are outcome-oriented and merit-based places where people aspire to achieve top performance. Employees are united by a drive for capability and success; leaders emphasize goal accomplishment.
Authority is defined by strength, decisiveness, and boldness. Work environments are competitive places where people strive to gain personal advantage. Employees are united by strong control; leaders emphasize confidence and dominance.
Safety is defined by planning, caution, and preparedness. Work environments are predictable places where people are risk-conscious and think things through carefully. Employees are united by a desire to feel protected and anticipate change; leaders emphasize being realistic and planning ahead.
Order is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms. Work environments are methodical places where people tend to play by the rules and want to fit in. Employees are united by cooperation; leaders emphasize shared procedures and time-honored customs.
An organizational culture can be defined by the absolute and relative strengths of each of the eight styles and by the degree of employee agreement about which styles characterize the organization. A powerful feature of framework, depicted in the above diagram, integrates organizational culture attributes with culture styles. What differentiates it from other models, is that it can also be used to define individuals’ styles and the values of leaders and employees.
The eight styles can, thus, be used to diagnose and describe highly complex and diverse behavioral patterns in a culture and to model how likely an individual leader is to align with and shape that culture.
The following sketch, adapted from the article, Turnaround the Corporate Culture – Business Operations Performance Management, very vividly shows the ‘rad to do’ and easy to do’ areas of an organizational leader’s role.
The current literature that differentiates leaders from managers would place ‘hard to do’ areas into the leader domain and easy to-do’ areas in a manager domain.
In a changing society, new leadership styles are emerging. Professor Joseph E Trimble, in this TEDxWWU talk – Culture and leadership – calls out the old dominating styles and brings to light more inclusive, diverse and effective options.
In order to build a winning culture, the top teams must be seen by the organization as living the values and walking the talk.
Organizations are shadows of their leaders ….. that’s the good news and the bad news
The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.
Organizations can’t change if leaders can’t change with them
To sum up., the organizational culture is a very powerful tool in the hands of the leader to accomplish sustained competitive advantage. However, to use the culture as a powerful tool, leader needs to ensure that strategy that is laid out to sustain the success, is consistent with changing context of the organization and is aligned with e organizational culture.