Culture: The Leadership Mirror

By Frank Wander  |  Posted 01-08-2014
leaders

Culture: The Leadership Mirror

By Frank Wander

There is a movement across corporate America to reinvent workplace culture. Traditional corporations are finding they can no longer innovate, and understand that creating a high-performing and innovative culture is a competitive necessity. Reflexively, the senior executives focus immediately on their organization in order to understand how "the workers" operate. They take internal surveys so they can peer inside the culture and discover how individuals feel.  

What they fail to grasp is that the broader culture is their reflection, while subcultures are a manifestation of their leadership team. Culture echoes back how leaders behave, who they embrace, what they celebrate, who they ignore, how they react to errors and how they relate to others. It is about them. The survey results are about them as well. Until executives use introspection to understand who they are, and how their behavior shapes their organization, cultural change will fail. It is first, and foremost, about them and their team. You transform from the inside (yourself) out (others). It is the only thing that produces meaningful and enduring results.

Culture begins at the very top, with the board of directors, then the executive management team, and from there it spreads through the entire company. Great enterprises possess a shared culture, but that is not the norm. More often, there are diverse subcultures, many of them. These subcultures are formed by the beliefs and behaviors of divisional executives, who are given wide latitude to shape their organization. These executives say all of the right things, but if that is not who they are, a contradiction exists. For, you see, culture is not about words, but about behaviors. This is the fundamental reason why cultural transformation efforts often fail. When misaligned behavior occurs, the executive tone sounds good, but it doesn't feel anything like that for the professionals working under them.

To understand why behavior is so powerful, we must understand who we are. First and foremost, humans are social animals. This is our DNA. Put a group of people together and relationships form, enabling a social system to take shape. Part of that system will include a social hierarchy. Social psychology research confirms that people innately understand the hierarchy, and will embrace the behaviors of those above them, but not the words. Behavior is the driver, because for most of our evolution, speech didn't exist. Behavior is therefore the deepest and most powerful transformation agent.

So, culture is shaped, first and foremost, by the executives' behavior. Humans have a need to be accepted, so they learn all the unwritten behavioral rules through observation, and internalize them. As Geert Hofstede, who has written extensively about international cultures, observed: "Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another." Culture is therefore learned and shared by groups of people, be they countries, companies or IT departments. But behavior is the mode of transmission.

Workers learn the cultural rules through observation, by watching how those above them interact, what they reward and what they punish. It is the leadership’s behavior, rewards and recognition that establishes what is acceptable and encouraged, and what is unacceptable and discouraged. Most times it is not a product of design, but the unplanned consequences of how they act. If the executives constantly talk about the importance of collaboration, but fail to collaborate among themselves, the unspoken message is clear: collaboration is not what we value. Do whatever you have to do to win. Individual needs trump the needs of the group. Selfishness reigns supreme.    

The question then is, how do you want your division, department or area to work? The higher up you are, the larger your influence and impact. That said, first line managers can shape their areas, and individuals can influence the teams in which they work. Although your influence may be limited in scope, it doesn't mean you should ignore the positive impact you can create. As a leader, here are several steps you should take to change the collective programming.  

First, take a look in the mirror. Yes, internal surveys are a valuable source of input, but in low-trust cultures, people often give the answer they believe management wants to hear. They are never sure if their answers are confidential, so rather than take the risk of being candid, they protect themselves with carefully chosen responses. To overcome this, you will have to observe, walk around, talk to people at all levels and ascertain the organizational pulse. The truth should be self-evident.

Culture: The Leadership Mirror

Next, determine what needs to change. Make a list of the behavioral outcomes you are looking for, like collaboration, openness, transparency, a fun work culture and so forth. These outcomes collectively represent your Tone at the Top, which will be communicated and reinforced. But remember, how you behave is what facilitates the transformation. Your communication must align with what you want your organization to become, but it is your behavior that models, or signals, the changes. Words just describe your behavior to help remove any ambiguity. Also, whatever you do, don’t go it alone. As an executive, you must engage your senior leadership team in the process, and then the broader leadership team in the final definition—or your efforts will not be embraced.   

After you have defined, acted out and communicated the leadership tone, what that means in terms of how your staff collaborates with one another is next. These are the group behaviors, or the Culture in the Core. Here, once again, words provide clarity, but it is the shared behavior that defines the actual culture.

Assemble a team of volunteers to define guidelines for productive interaction and collaboration. These guidelines must align with the tone you desire. If one of your cultural goals is complete transparency, then this team must define the behaviors that result in open and transparent interaction. In general, the overarching goal is to increase productivity, so the organization can deliver better results for the enterprise.

Since IT creates value through teams of individuals that span both the business and IT, it is ultimately the degree and intensity of collaboration within and across organizational boundaries that drives outcomes. That means you must improve the strength of relationships and the mood (i.e., the social climate), since both are strong drivers of workforce productivity. The specifics will vary based on how healthy your culture is, and how you need to reshape it.

If you are truly motivated to build a high-performing culture, you can. (For a detailed recipe, I recommend you read my book, Transforming IT Culture, to gain an in-depth understanding of how to do it.) The key takeaway is this: cultural change begins with you, the leaders. If you have an unproductive culture, or you have been unable to change the culture, it is time for some deep introspection. 

About the Author

Frank Wander, a former CIO, is founder and CEO of the IT Excellence Institute, and author of Transforming IT Culture, How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department That Outperforms (Wily, 2013). For his previous CIO Insight article, "Unlocking Your Organization's Innovation Potential," click here