Leaders Are Responsible for Culture

The best definition of organizational culture may be “the way we do things around here.” It draws attention to the fact that culture and behavior are inextricably linked. It also points out that “the way” is a rather nebulous concept. The definition of organizational culture is not “our procedures for doing things.” Procedures are evidence of culture, but culture is broader than steps and checklists. One of the most important responsibilities of leaders is to shape and drive the organization’s culture. How do we do that?

Edgar Schein is credited with introducing the concept of organizational culture to the modern dialogue of business, management, and leadership. In the 1980s, Schein wrote about three “levels” of culture:

  1. Artifacts and Behaviors—Tangible actions and statements. Physical elements of the work environment from building structures to clothing styles. Stories. Jokes. Company Web sites. Elements visible to those external to the culture.
  2. Espoused Values—Stated values and rules. How members of the organization represent the organization internally and externally. The “About Us” page on a Web site. Espoused values are often aspirational, future focused.
  3. Assumptions—Deeply ingrained behaviours that occur unconsciously. Automatic thought patterns regarding any dimension of the organization. Difficult to identify because of the assumed, automatic nature.

These levels of culture are present in every organization. Each category comprises evidence of your existing culture. They are also “levers” you can use to shape the culture in your organization.

For example, let’s pick an organizational attribute that leaders might desire or want to improve. Let’s use “cross-functional collaboration.”

Your first step is to research the question: What are the artifacts and behaviors of our organization that describe our commitment to and level of collaboration? Your list will contain both positive and negative examples. The practice of leaders reaching out to other departments on project work is a positive example. On the other hand, leaders who reserve key roles for their team members is a negative example. Be comprehensive and thorough. Look at all departments and levels of the organization.

Next, research the question What are our espoused values related to cross-functional collaboration? What do our official documents and Web site say about this? What are the underlying values built into our internal policies and procedures? Again, you’ll find evidence that you both support and do not support this goal in your values. When I work with leaders on this step I also challenge them to carefully differentiate between espoused and actual values. There is nothing wrong with espoused values, and they should indeed draw us to improve (i.e. we aren’t succeeding with them 100% of the time). However, keep in mind my mantra about values: It is impossible to act contrary to your actual values.

Finally, explore the question What unspoken assumptions drive our thinking and behavior about collaboration? What are the mental inputs that shape how we see and think about our work? This is the hardest level of culture to dig into. It is probably best done in a series of focused reflection exercises. For example, choose a meeting on your calendar, preferably a meeting of a small group or a 1:1. Schedule 15 minutes of private reflection time after that meeting. While you’re in the meeting heighten your observation of your comments, questions, and decisions, as well as that of the others. In your 15-minute reflection time try to identify the thinking patterns, the assumptions, that precipitated specific comments, questions, and decisions. With practice you’ll be able to identify positive and negative assumptions about collaboration with ease.

As you collect the data related to each of those three levels of culture, you’ll also begin to see opportunities to shape the culture. One of the most powerful artifacts of culture is story. Leaders can shape culture to be more collaborative by carefully choosing to tell stories that exemplify a collaboration focus.

Leaders can also shape a collaboration focus culture by posting, for example, a Collaboration Philosophy statement on the Web site and drawing attention to it in meetings, presentations, and written communication.

The hardest cultural shift to make is in assumptions. This is where leaders must really lead the charge. You must exercise mental discipline in evaluating your own underlying thoughts, carefully modifying them to support an outcome of increased collaboration. You must utilize the collaboration lens in all relevant conversations and decisions—and make that overtly evident. Sometimes this shift will be emphasized, and sometimes it will be subtle.

In a recent HBR blog article, Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat, wrote, “Culture is learned behavior.” The people most able to drive that learning is leaders. Whitehurst explained, “how we behave as leaders drives the kind of culture we end up with.” He went on to point out that this is also why changing culture can be so difficult.

Leaders don’t catalyze cultural change by focusing on other things and other people. It starts with internal change. Your own mindset needs to change first.

  1. What are the artifacts and behaviors you choose to emphasize?
  2. What espoused values are you promoting?
  3. What assumptions are you training to become automatic in your own thinking?

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Massimo Mancini. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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