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.

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