“The quality of our lives is dependent on the quality of work that we carry out in organisations, which in turn depends upon the quality of the workforce and its leadership.”(Macdonald, Burke & Stewart p. xv).
Culture creation: Leaders don’t need to do anything!
There is a lot of discussion about what leaders need to do to create a culture in their organizations. Many theories and much advice can be found in books, talks and on LinkedIn. Truth to tell a leader does not need to do anything. A culture will be there, and be forming or reforming, whether the leader does anything or not. The question is whether leaders wish to consciously influence that process and contribute to the creation of a positive culture that suits the organization’s purpose and is a good place for human beings to work.
What is Organizational Culture?
Some define it simply as ‘the way things are around here’. By that they mean the way people experience work in that organization and the common things that seem to go on in that environment. Such explanations may be saying more about the features of a culture and how it is experienced than about the definition of culture itself.
In his book ‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’ Edgar Schein highlights the following four important elements to include in a definition of culture.
- Shared: An organizational culture implies that certain things in groups are shared or held in common. Macdonald, Burke and Stewart emphasize that a culture is a group of people ‘who share a common set of mythologies. By this they mean that one of the things shared is a common set of assumptions and beliefs about what behaviours are viewed positively or negatively against some core values, such as whether something is fair or unfair.
- Stable: Not only are these things shared but there is some stability about that shared-ness which is part of how the group defines itself. Cultures do not change rapidly and have inbuilt inertia and resistance to minor influences.
- Pervasive: Culture is pervasive and permeates all aspects of organizational life, its environment, its decision-making, the behaviours of members, and how the organisation achieves its purpose.
- Coherent: The different facets and demonstrations of the culture such as mythologies, rituals, climate, values, and behaviours are bound together into a coherent whole.
So organizational culture is all around us in the organization, there are a bunch of characteristics that have come together as shared ways of seeing things, it affects what we do in fulfilling the purpose, and this whole is not easy to shift or change quickly.
Why is Culture important?
Something that is a significant part of our working environment and which influences how we do what we do, should be of great interest and importance to leaders of organizations.
An understanding of organizational culture is essential in explaining and even predicting reactions, conflict, success, behaviours, and other things one can observe.
“Once we learn to see the world through cultural lenses, all kinds of things begin to make sense that initially were mysterious, frustrating, or seemingly stupid.” Schein
It is part of the work of leaders to create a positive culture in their team or organization. The culture in a team is a reflection on the leader if the leader has been there some time.
Leadership of the kind that cares for the people in the organization, and for the clients or community served, will pay attention to the culture. Such leaders will be looking for ways to positively influence the culture to create conditions conducive to human well-being as they work together to pursue the organization’s purpose.
How did your culture get to be the way it is?
The current culture developed over time with the influence of consistent messages and behaviour from leaders. This is true even if those leaders had no conscious intention to influence the culture. People came to conclusions as they observed the behaviour of leaders over time, and where those conclusions were similar to others in the organization, a culture began to form. Other powerful influences, according to Macdonald Burke and Stewart are the systems (which can drive behaviour) and symbols which convey messages and meaning.
Leaders behaviour, systems and symbols – these three things have had a powerful influence on the culture you have ended up with.
Where to start?
Hopefully there are aspects of your organizations culture which are positive and appropriate for an organization such as yours. There may also be aspects of the culture which are doing harm to the organization, its people and those it serves.
A good place to start is with some analysis of how things are currently:
- How are people experiencing work in the organization?
- What are some of the common beliefs and mythologies held by staff?
- What do you notice about the organization, its environment, the structure, the systems and the messaging from symbols?
- What are you surprised not to see that you expected might be there?
- What are the frequently told stories amongst staff about the organization, about leaders, about each other and themselves?
What do you hear that seems to be related to core human values such as fairness, trust, and being treated with dignity?
So the starting place for a leader is to be curious, to be listening, listening more than telling, and listening for meaning. It can be useful to get some outside help to sample some conversations, stories, mythologies, systems and symbols. This will help to check your own bias and, depending on the culture, may encourage more open speaking across the organization.
'If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.'
It’s important to spend time describing in detail the desired future people would like to have in the organization. How would people be acting towards each other and between teams? What would we love to hear had become the common stories and mythologies held by staff?
Having identified features of the current and future culture the leaders seek to understand which leader behaviours, systems and symbols have together combined to help bring about the current culture. This will give the leadership very important clues about what needs to be done differently to shift the culture towards the desired future.
|Behavour of Leaders||Systems||Symbols|
These things which influenced the current culture can be the very things that, if changed significantly, could act as tools of culture change.
- What different behaviour will leaders exhibit, consistently?
- Which systems need to be changed, thrown out or designed and implemented?
- What messages do we want the symbols to convey?
- Most importantly, how can we ensure that there is consistency in the messaging of these three tools?
Capable leaders in organizations around the world have demonstrated the effectiveness of using these three powerful tools in their work of creating a positive culture and making a difference in their organizations.
Through its management training and advisory services, MDF has over 30 years been helping organisations all over the world to create and implement positive organisational changes. Please visit our website here or contact Rod Barnett to find out more.
- Edgar Schein: Organizational Culture and Leadership Jossey-Bass 2004
Macdonald, Burke and Stewart: Systems Leadership – Creating Positive Organisations
Gower 2018. The author is a practitioner of the approach in this work and it has become a major part of his work with organizations around the world. This article is based on the work of these three authors and fellow practitioners.