Organizational culture is one of those concepts like religious faith – we know it is powerful, it can be potently good or potently destructive, and it has a seeming life of its own. But every leader poses the same question: can it be harnessed and directed; can it be changed to support success rather than hinder it? To answer that, you need to understand what builds and feeds it.
Professors Ken Thompson (DePaul University) and Fred Luthans (University of Nebraska) describe seven characteristics of organizational culture:
1. Culture is made up of your organization’s behavior norms. However they are formed, behaviors become self-reinforcing. Behaviors of tolerating mediocre performance, for example, limit your ability to get stellar performance from any employee. To change culture, look at what behaviors are considered acceptable and begin to change tone.
2. Culture is learned. This is good news. You as a leader can help to instill new cultural behaviors by simply doing them consistently. Want an appreciative, collaborative culture? Say thank you often. Ask for advice from everyone.
3. Culture is spread through interaction. Every single interaction in your organization, from a job interview to an employee meeting, sows the seeds of your culture in both new and old places. Pay attention to what those interactions are transmitting! Are the interactions hopeful and enthusiastic, responsible and committed, or tired and mistrusting? Begin to both model and expect the kind of interactions you want.
4. Sub-cultures form through rewards. Your corporate culture is not the only culture at play. Employees get value from other cultural influences in the organization. For example, if diversity is not clearly valued in your organization, employees of color may look to people of similar ethnic groups to identify standards of behavior to follow, whether or not all those behaviors are valuable for the organization. If there is an organizational culture of ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups, there will be behaviors in the ‘in’ groups to preserve preferential status, and behaviors in the ‘out’ groups to subvert the status of the ‘in’ group members. Leaders must notice the development of sub-cultures and determine whether they support desired cultural norms. If they don’t, it’s important to address reward structures that drive behavior to undesirable outcomes.
5. People shape culture. If the majority of people in an organization are outgoing, the culture will be more open and sociable. If most are skeptics, the culture will be more mistrustful and risk-averse. While every organization benefits from diversity of viewpoint, be aware of emerging themes in the qualities of those hired into the organization and those assuming leadership roles, and intentionally change up hiring and promotion patterns to create the organizational qualities you desire.
6. Culture is negotiated. No one person creates or changes culture without the permission and participation of others. Culture is only changed when there is open discussion and involvement in what is productive and unproductive about the current culture. So no stealth tactics work. Cultural change is about slogging through relational issues, most often one at a time.
7. Culture is tough to change. Nothing is harder than to unlearn and relearn new behaviors. Motivation has to be strong to make that effort worthwhile. It requires persistence, discipline, empathy and appreciation from the leaders asking for the change. Above all, it requires time.
Organizational culture forms roots quickly. The best leaders pay attention to what seeds are being sown in their organizational cultures, pull out the weeds by their roots, and feed and water the cultural ‘plants’ that they want to grown.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant