Recently I wrote an article about decision failures in leadership. As I wrote that article, I began to think about organizational culture and the impact leadership has on that culture. This article explores five aspects of this concept. What is organizational culture? How is this culture developed? Can an organization have more than one culture? How does one recognize the culture of an organization? How does an organization ensure the culture it wants is the culture it creates and maintains?
Anyone with internet access can quickly determine the academic definition of organizational culture. Nevertheless, what it really boils down to is the culture of an organization is based on the individuals within that organization and how they behave in any given circumstance. For all the posters on the hallway walls and all the taglines in recruiting and marketing material, the culture of an organization rests with the individuals who make up the organization.
The culture of an organization begins with its stated, and inferred, values and beliefs. We have all seen the lofty value statements posted in work areas, pasted across web pages, and verbally reinforced at every “all hands” meeting. However, documenting these values and beliefs is much different that an organization’s ability to demonstrate the values. Individuals within an organization will behave in any manner as long as that behavior is tolerated. This tolerance of behavior comes from leaders and peers and is present at all levels within an organization. When an individual in a leadership position is in the presence of an infraction and does nothing to correct the infraction they establish a new and lesser standard. When this occurs enough, individuals within the organization become bystanders, allowing inappropriate behavior or group conduct. Watching events as a bystander. A local paper in Kentucky was in national news recently when it ran a fabricated quote of the county sheriff stating words to the effect that the only reason one entered the law enforcement profession was it allowed them to shoot minorities. The circumstances were one editor inserted the fabrication thinking the other editor would catch the fabrication. The fabrication was not caught; the paper went to press and was distributed countywide. The act itself is despicable enough, but what of the culture at the paper? What existed in its culture to make one editor think such an unprofessional act was allowable? What of the culture at GM in my previous article? What was it about the culture that made leaders throughout the organization think as long as no one knew of the ignition failures it was acceptable?
In many industries, organizations have multiple cultures, one facing out towards the customer, another facing in. One would expect both cultures to be the same, focused on the customer and the experience of the customer. Looking at the internal culture of an organization without direct leadership buy in at all levels it is very possible for the organization to have different cultures established between the executive level and the production floor level.
How can one tell what kind of culture exists within an organization? Watch and listen. Watch how the outward facing individuals interact with customers, then watch as the same person interacts with co-workers, watch how front line management executes its leadership responsibilities. Listen closely to what they say to each other, and how they say it. Compare these observations to the higher headquarters view of the company culture. I was in a parts store recently where an associate was speaking on the phone with a customer. I could tell the person on the other end did not have a mechanical understanding or background and the associate was becoming frustrated. When the conversation ended, the associate stated, “Hell, I don’t care what part he wants, just as long as he does not come here to get it, what an idiot.” I wondered how they would talk about me after I left. I am not the most mechanically inclined person, and I probably asked a few questions they thought might fall into the “stupid” category.
I know I have used only negative examples to this point. There are many good companies out there who practice what they preach when it comes to doing the right thing for the right reason. So, how does one establish a culture within an organization that is transparent and parallel? In a word, Leadership. From the top down, and across all organizational functions. Consistent leadership founded in the values and beliefs of an organization. With leaders engaged with team members and consistently demonstrate care, compassion, concern and commitment. The HR function only hires those individuals who demonstrate their commitment to the company values through past performance. The supply chain only allows vendors who support the values of the company, Leaders at all levels hold themselves, as well as other organizational members to the same stringent standards. Leaders make on the spot corrections (first offense) and mete out consequences consistent with the infraction and as you have dealt with the same infraction in the past. Hold the line on your “non-negotiables”. Remember individuals will normally only behave in inappropriate ways when they think leaders do not care enough to correct the behavior.