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Shaping your organisation's culture

Dr Greg Morgan explains how if you want to change your organisation's culture then you need to ask yourself how close the leadership path you think you are on is to the one you are actually on.

Are you too kind to be a leader?

Lucy McCarthy takes a look at the connection between kindness, strength and leadership.

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Shaping your organisation's culture

How close is the leadership path you think you are on, to the one you are actually on?

What is an organisation’s culture and why is it so important?

‘Culture’ is often defined as, ‘the way we do things around here’. How a group of people goes about doing anything involves patterns of behaviour that develop over time. And the human energy that forms these patterns of behaviour flows along a line of least resistance, just like water across the landscape. Instead of mountains and valleys making up the ‘topographical features’ shaping the flow, human energy is guided and shaped by forces from two distinct directions. The first lies within each individual and includes attributes such as personal values, levels of efficacy, self-confidence, integrity, commitment, motivation, skill, sense of purpose and levels trust offered to colleagues/supervisors. The second is situational and includes opportunities for personal growth; how aligned the behaviour of colleagues/supervisors is perceived as being with their espoused values; ‘rituals’ that demonstrate a sense of belonging and community; formal practices of all kinds; levels of consultation; the balance between autonomy and micro-management; and how much we are offered optimism, respect, empathy, care and even fun.

When the ‘way things are done around here’ evolves of its own accord, strange things can happen. Supervisors and employees can become confused, disappointed in, and frustrated with each other, with each tending to follow a different path; the rationale of some patterns of behaviour can be long lost from anyone’s understanding – it is just what we do, who knows why? And when people are concerned about the unpredictability of senior colleagues, and feel vulnerable, they tend to focus on protecting themselves to avoid blame for doing the wrong thing. Workplaces with cultures which mainly evolve of their own accord are often somewhat adrift because ‘the way we do things around here’ is not aligned with the organisation’s vision, values and strategic goals.

A low level, yet everyday and illustrative example of this occurred recently when my wife and I visited another city and were enticed inside a bistro by the sign out the front advertising its breakfast menu. The waitress said, “Oh, I’m sorry, breakfasts are closed for today.” When I politely queried this, given the sign said breakfasts till 11.30 and it was 11.15, she persevered with her smile, saying, “I’m sorry. My manager just told me we are not taking any more breakfast orders.” We thanked her, walked a few more doors along and entered another bistro whose sign also said breakfasts till 11.30. We were taken to a table and a satisfying breakfast. The culture of one featured behaviour aligned with values oriented around customer service, while the other apparently did not.

An espoused, shared, core value among the staff of the school where I was Principal was, ‘we respect and support each other’. This was put to the test one tragic day when a teacher’s partner died in a motor vehicle crash. It went without saying that this horrendous event required action aligned to that core value, so our Chaplain and Assistant Principal spent all of that first day with our grief-stricken colleague (with ongoing follow up). This was no small undertaking at short notice, requiring expensive rescheduling of other commitments and cover for classes. Late that day the Chaplain remarked how unusual it is for a school to ‘step up’ like this.

A positive, vibrant culture in which core values are lived out in practice, is vital in any organisation seeking to flourish. Where there is a focus on continual improvement, where people learn together, and are scrupulous in seeking and providing feedback from clients and each other, respectfully, collaboratively and rigorously; then ‘the way we do things here’ becomes more tightly aligned with what the organisation seeks to achieve.

A generative, human bond grows between people when they recognise that they share common values, and this radiates outwards to higher levels of trust and reciprocity, greater alignment and more progress towards desired strategic outcomes. And of course this generates even more energy and shared momentum.

Why is it so hard to change an organisation’s culture?

So, assuming that a culture aligned with vision and values is so important, why does it remain a relative rarity? I have never encountered anyone in a leadership position who does not want their organisation to thrive and prosper, yet I have experienced cultures in which observable behaviour suggests otherwise and where, in some cases, the pattern of behaviour observed actively and unintentionally undermines the very progress desired. How could this happen?

My observations suggest three reasons:

  1. Many leaders overlook a key focus of which behaviour they notice and seek to address. It can often be very apparent when the behaviour of others falls short of expectations. However, effective leadership begins with leaders modelling, teaching and articulating the desired behaviour. Often, leaders can have a blind spot about their own behaviour and what it models in every situation. For example, if we wish to cultivate a culture of feedback then instrumental to this is leaders actively seeking and responding to feedback, not just expecting others to.
  2. Leaders can be frustrated in their efforts at nurturing a positive culture by the twin constraints of busyness and not knowing what to do. When you are mired in the overwhelming, daily, moment-to-moment busyness throughout the working day, making time to ‘work’ on the culture can seem as remote and unattainable as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Similarly, most leaders have few opportunities to learn anything about how to lead and influence the shaping of a culture. So many myths persist about what leaders should and should not do, especially around ‘strong’, ‘decisive’ leadership. Sadly, coercive methods often undermine the very trust and confidence leaders seek and can result in the lowest level of compliance instead of commitment and the deploying of discretionary energy often so palpable in a high-performing culture.
  3. Most leaders might acknowledge that having a vision and a set of core values is important for a positive culture. However, simply having a declared list of core values without focusing on the matching behaviour achieves very little. As financial losses accumulated for American energy company Enron, senior personnel grew more talented at hiding the scale of the problem and kept trading until their roof caved in. Enron had four core values which it proudly displayed prominently in its foyer and annual reports: Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence. Enron’s corporate behaviour was so far removed from these espoused values that one journalist suggested they should have declared their real core value as, ‘We will strive to make as much money as possible without going to prison’.


How might leaders go about changing the culture of an organisation?

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz believes the success of his enterprise is mostly to do with culture. He is so confident that ‘the way we do things around here’ cannot be copied that he says, “We have no patent on anything we do and anything we do can be copied by anyone else. But you cannot copy the heart and the soul and the conscience of the company”.

While an organisation’s culture cannot be transplanted from somewhere else, there are sophisticated practices leaders can undertake to make a difference. With the main exceptions of reflex actions, all behaviour is learned, including ‘how we do things around here’. The great news for leaders is that if people’s behaviour at work is learned, they can be engaged in learning new behaviour. Some of the most important work of leaders is to cultivate a culture by design. This is long-term work and involves all stakeholders engaging in continuous iterations of learning the behaviour that observably demonstrates their espoused, shared values in action; modelling and refining that behaviour; and seeking feedback on it, responding to the feedback, and so on.

If, for example, ‘respect’ is hailed as a core value, leaders should lead dialogue and learning around what that means in observable behaviour by everyone in every interaction between colleagues, employees and supervisors; staff and clients; staff and contractors and so forth. And then to drill down even further into what respectful behaviour ‘looks like’ in meetings, in the lunch room, when receiving a request, compliment or complaint, and so on. When leaders articulate that they are seeking to engage everyone in shaping the culture everyone desires and then actively teach and model the observable behaviour of each core value in action, by acknowledging and celebrating successes along the way, momentum begins to build. There is a caveat, however. This is all dependent on the perceived credibility of leaders. Therefore, it is vital that leaders are scrupulous about their actions aligning with their values. I used to go to a dentist who had a declared value of ‘the highest level of friendly, professional service’. However, while his work on my teeth was great, he undermined his reputation with me by very bluntly admonishing his admin staff in front of me about clerical errors.

Besides expecting, teaching, rewarding and modelling ‘the way we do things around here’, there is another dimension to what leaders can do. This relates to shaping the landscape along which human energy flows. How often do managers despair at a new system, program or process not being taken up by employees, despite its obvious benefits? The introduction of a new structure will rarely, of itself, lead to the change desired because resourceful people will find ways to subvert it. What makes the crucial difference is making the new structure easier to follow than the existing one, so that people’s energy flows along a path of least resistance in the desired direction.

Enormous amounts of energy dissipate in organisations when behaviour is poorly aligned with espoused values: it is wasted in unnecessary confusion and competing priorities; it is diverted towards self-protection; and it is vented when pressures mount. However, when leaders are effective in designing systems aligned with vision and values, the reverse occurs with energy not only being conserved but additional energy being generated. As everyone’s efforts become more harmonised, they become more invested in the vision and have higher levels of role clarity, trust and confidence in what is happening. The cascading effect of this can dramatically reduce the time leaders spend on resolving confusion, tension and other issues between stakeholders. Leaders can then use this time freed up from excessive busyness to focus their own energy on further strengthening the culture and the organisation’s strategic initiatives.

Dr Greg Morgan is an expert in the field of leadership development for education professionals. 

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