Culture & Leadership

You can generally feel the culture of an organisation as soon as you walk through the door. Are you made to feel welcome, greeted with a smile? Is there a quiet buzz of excitement and creativity, or a deathly silence, among the people around the office? Do people seem relaxed and happy or stressed and tense? Organisational culture is complex, and challenging to change, but in my experience there is nothing more important if you want to lead a positive, engaged, committed and innovative team of people who work together for shared goals and with shared values. And why wouldn’t any leader want that? Yet in so many organisations, that is a long way from reality.

There are many definitions of culture in the organisational sense. It is about “the attitudes and values which inform a society” (Chambers Dictionary); or “the beliefs, behaviour, language, and entire way of life of a particular time or group of people. Culture includes customs, ceremonies, works of art, inventions, technology, and traditions” (Encarta – do you remember that?!). In our workplaces, as in wider society, we have beliefs we share about what we do and why we do it, and about how valid or successful it is; we often have our own language (jargon?) and even our customs, ceremonies and traditions (leaving parties, Christmas parties… – why not arriving parties?); aesthetics are also important – how we decorate and arrange our spaces and how we communicate with the outside world; and of course how we use technology is a key cultural indicator.

Some of the most important aspects of culture are fairly tangible and can even be set out in policies, though much is also intangible, and good policies can be undermined by an informal culture that treats them as optional.

It is possible to look at an organisation along a variety of spectra. For example, where does it sit on the risk continuum from risk-averse to courageous, and for each continuum, how much agreement or disagreement is there – are there radically different cultural attitudes in different parts of the organisation? These key variables can be tested through exercises, discussion and surveys. Some others might include attitudes to change (change-resistant to change-embracing) or decision-making (where is the team on the spectrum from control to consultation, participation and empowerment?) What is the organisation’s approach to creativity and innovation: are new ideas encouraged or are traditional methods sacrosanct? Are people generally collaborative or competitive; do they work together or stay in their silos? Are new technologies embraced at the bleeding edge or only reluctantly employed when thoroughly proven elsewhere? Is lack of success seen as an opportunity to learn and develop or a sacking offence? Is information freely shared or jealously guarded? Are procedures a heavy bureaucratic burden where every action requires form in triplicate, or a light touch protection for fairness and propriety. How are customers/partners/beneficiaries/users regarded – are they the raison d’etre for everyone, or those troublesome people left to the customer service team to worry about?

In a cause-related, not-for-profit organisation, commitment to the cause may be expected, but it doesn’t always guarantee a positive and unified culture. Individuals’ commitment may be attached more to a particular function or activity than to the organisation as a whole and its guiding purpose, leading to an attitude where fighting one’s corner becomes the most powerful motivator, especially when resources are in short supply. Strong values and principles that should unite and be focused outwards, to those the organisations exists to support, can instead become inwardly directed. Campaigning and advocacy skills can mutate into internal politics – the organisation may be a softer target than changing the world outside.  Altruistic instincts can mutate into harmful and unproductive self-sacrifice. Multiple competing demands from donors and partners can lead to confusion or risk aversity.

Even organisations where high levels of motivation may be expected to be intrinsic can have highly variable and often problematic cultural traits. They can become internally divided, even confrontational, with a long-hours culture that isn’t necessarily productive, and resistance to change and risk. On the other hand, they can be (and I assume these are desirable characteristics) positive, collaborative, can-do, flexible, hard-working yet family-friendly, self-motivated and change-embracing.

Most people, I fear would recognise some of the following characteristics among at least some of their colleagues: the inability to say “no” to any demand or opportunity even when they are already overloaded; the competitive overworking (“I did 70 hours last week”, said in a challenging and boastful, rather than regretful, way); the people who are happy to sit in their silo and complain that their corner of the organisation is never given the recognition and resources it so patently deserves; the complaints about lack of consultation when consultation doesn’t go their way. I’m sure you could come up with more of these unfortunate stereotypes.

Culture exists in every organisation, whether it is explicit or not. It is inherited. It can be surprising how quickly new members of the team adopt the prevailing cultural traits, even when they are contrary to the organisation’s stated values. There seems to be a kind of informal induction programme running alongside the official one. This informal induction teaches newcomers “how things are done around here”: what rules can be safely ignored; how to get what you want in the plan and budget; and which managers you should respect and which you won’t. Organisations come with their own embedded stories – a retelling of key moments of history that are used to explain what it is like here. In the worst case, newcomers are quickly inducted into the ‘sides’ that may exist that divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

But cultures are NOT fixed. They can change! And the most important element in that change is leadership. It isn’t easy. Indeed it is probably one of the biggest challenges any leader can face. But it is also probably THE most important.

First, it is important to recognise the culture(s) we already have. Then to genuinely engage everyone, and I mean everyone, in a participative process to determine how we would like it to be. What is our shared cultural vision and what values do we have in common that drive and inform our efforts: what kind of organisation do we want to be? What kind of organisation do we think and feel would help us to deliver our best work, to achieve the strategy and goals we have set ourselves and to provide the best possible support for our partners, users or beneficiaries. Is our culture getting in the way? What needs to change?

THE most important element in culture change is for the senior leaders, individually and as a team, to live, authentically and as thoroughly as they possibly can, by the agreed cultural vision! If the vision is of an organisation that collaborates, shares and trusts, the leaders must demonstrate those characteristics every day. If they are seen to be less than united, to criticise each other to others, to fail to share important information, to treat people with distrust, then everyone will feel free to ignore the new culture and carry on as before.

It is also vital to make the culture explicit, to communicate it creatively and repeatedly, and to include it in the induction of every new person. Indeed, culture is often communicated even before people apply for jobs (“I know someone who works there and they say it’s like this…”). The new culture needs to be communicated before the old one is! Talk about it in recruitment advertising and interviews, give it a name and bring it to life with examples. Hire and retain people who want to thrive in the kind of culture you are moving towards. Tell new stories to replace the old ones. Recognise and celebrate progress. Refresh the cultural dialogue continuously. Challenge actions that subvert the new culture but do so in a way which is appropriate to it. Become the place that the best people want to work because they can develop, and achieve their best work, in your cultural environment.

There will be setbacks – this is not going to be easy and it will never be perfect. Expect some cynicism and resistance but don’t let it get you down or put you off. It takes time and patience but it is definitely worthwhile.

I think Matthew Arnold had it right in 1874 when he said “Culture is the passion for sweetness and light, and (what is more) the passion for making them prevail”. May sweetness and light prevail in your organisation.


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