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It Starts at the Top: How Leaders Shape Organizational Culture

Top view of business group discussing company culture

In today’s increasingly polarized world, it can be difficult to find a topic around which people can reach a consensus. However, if one were to query leaders from an array of companies ranging in size, industry, and sector, a consensus will quickly emerge on the importance of having a strong, vibrant, and healthy organizational culture. Yet the concept of culture, and more importantly, how to achieve a healthy culture, remains elusive and nebulous to many company leaders.

Organizational culture refers to a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that guide employees toward what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Typically thought of in a business context, culture exists in any setting in which an organization, team, or group of people share common interests, needs, and goals. Sports teams, religious institutions, the fraternity or sorority you may have joined in college – all these groups have an organizational culture which, when healthy, serves as a guiding and motivating force.

For leaders, then, achieving a healthy organizational culture seems straightforward – identify a set of corporate values, clearly communicate these values to the workforce, and congratulate yourself for setting the company on the right path. But reality paints a different picture. Numerous surveys over recent years have pointed to a gap between a company’s desired or aspirational culture and what employees actually experience in the work environment. The Katzenbach Global Culture Survey (2018) conducted by consulting firm PwC, for example, reveals a stark gap between leaders’ views on organizational culture and their people’s reality.

What is the cause of this disconnect? A common response by leaders is to double down on clarifying and communicating values and beliefs, but the real culprit is behavior. Behavior is the visible manifestation of culture in any company, and it reflects the “true” culture, not the aspirational or idealized culture that leadership states they want or believe they have in the firm. Behavior comes in many forms – email messages, non-verbal body language, internal message boards, participating (or not) in meetings, and collaboration – and is demonstrated dozens of times throughout the workday. And each interaction an employee has with a co-worker or leader is a “micro-culture” event, one which leaves an impression on the employee of what the true culture is.

Are you wondering if there is a culture/behavior disconnect in your organization? Here is an interesting exercise, a quick self-test, that can provide some insight:

  • Describe the culture in your organization. Be as specific as you can, capturing values, norms, and standards.
  • Next, describe the behaviors that you typically demonstrate at work. Be as specific – and honest – as you can in describing how you “show up” at work. What is the tone of your email messages? Are you interrupting or talking over other people in meetings? Are you shifting work to a colleague without giving regard to your colleague’s existing workload? Are you showing up late or skipping meetings? Did you say hello to a co-worker you saw in the break room? Did you ask a colleague about their weekend? All of these behaviors send messages to your colleagues and staff, positive or negative, about what is truly important to you and what you care about.
  • Now, compare the two lists. Are your behaviors aligned with the culture you described? Do your behaviors support the values, norms, and standards you outlined? If not, why not? Where are the gaps? And, most importantly, what is the “true” culture that is being created by your behaviors?
  • Want to take it a step further? Ask a few of your colleagues or a group of employees to take the same self-test and see what culture and behaviors they describe; doing so will provide additional feedback about the gap between your company’s desired and “true” culture.

It is well known that leaders are the biggest influence on culture, performance, and commitment within an organization. Many companies have invested substantial time, energy, and cost into the process of clarifying and communicating company values, and additional effort in routinely surveying employees to assess engagement and commitment. And these are good practices to pursue. But what is often overlooked is the simple adage “actions speak louder than words.” Employees pay attention to the behaviors and actions leaders and co-workers demonstrate in the workplace. If there is alignment and consistency between stated values and observed behaviors, employees’ beliefs and trust in leadership will be enhanced; if there is a gap between values and behaviors, trust, commitment, and engagement are eroded. So, the power to shape culture is, quite literally, based on how you act and behave as a leader. What steps can you take to ensure your own behaviors are sending the right cultural messages?

  • Embrace – and model – civility in the workplace. Civility and respect are present in a work environment where workers are respectful and considerate in their interactions with one another, as well as with customers and clients. Respect and civility are based on showing esteem, care, and consideration for others and acknowledging their dignity. And the costs of incivility are enormous; a Harvard Business Review article, for example, noted that 78% of employees who experienced bad behavior reported a decline in commitment to their organization.
  • Tell employees what behaviors are expected. Identify, describe, and communicate those behaviors that leadership believes will best support the desired culture and produce a healthy, engaging work environment. Communicate this often. And then communicate it again.
  • Ask for feedback. Leaders who express openness to receive feedback experience a double benefit: they are simultaneously modeling positive behavior while also getting feedback that supports their individual growth and development as a leader.
  • Hire for civility. Many companies utilize behavioral-based interviewing as part of the hiring process—an excellent practice. Avoid bringing uncivil behavior into your organization by screening for examples of civil and uncivil behaviors as a valid criterion in the candidate selection process.
  • Reward good behavior. Make sure performance evaluations address both what was accomplished (results) and how the employee worked (behaviors). Ensure that positive, civil behaviors are noted and rewarded.
  • Address negative behaviors. This may be the hardest thing for a leader to do; it also may be the most important. If negative or uncivil behaviors are not addressed, the message sent to employees is that leadership tacitly condones and supports those behaviors. When you observe or hear about bad behaviors, take action. Your employees are depending on you to do so.

Leading people – a team, a work group, a department, a company – is a daunting responsibility. Helping create and nurture the right organizational culture can appear overwhelming at times. But there is good news. The basic behavioral principles we all learned in our early school years – treating people in a decent, civil, respectful manner – are some of the most powerful leadership tools around….. and they’re free and within your direct control. #respectfulbehavior.

Rob Croner
Senior Consulting Advisor
CCI Consulting

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