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Leadership, Culture, and Change in the Twenty-first Century

Updated on December 30, 2014
Connecticut in Fall
Connecticut in Fall | Source

Organizational Culture - Catalyst or an Inhibitor?

Organizational culture is manifested through:

  • Senior Leadership
  • Oral and written communications
  • Organizational structure
  • A collaborative culture of teamwork or functional silos
  • The metrics that are measured – time, productivity, safety, and quality
  • Policies, Procedures, and Guardrails
  • Incentive Compensation and Reward Programs
  • Organizational stories, myths, values and rituals

Culture can be a Catalyst or an Inhibitor of Change

The culture of an organization describes how things are done within the organization and has the ability to strengthen an organization and facilitate organizational performance moving to the next level or work to erode organizational growth over time. Consequently, the impact of the culture is important when implementing incremental or transformational change.

Culture can be defined more specifically as the mindset and behaviors that are solidly entrenched in the organization. An organization is made of not only what is done, but how and why things are done a particular way, as well. Culture can be viewed as the organization’s DNA and it is formed over a long period of time and manifested in the formative years of the organization.

An organization’s culture is actually an aggregate of subcultures that have developed based on the challenges and experiences of the organization over time. Therefore, the culture is shared by individuals and impacts individuals regardless of whether they recognized it purposefully. The mindsets and behaviors of the individuals within the organization teach one another how to act in a variety of circumstances.

The organizational culture provides a way for employees to understand the unwritten rules and what to expect while working within the organization. Based on the cultural components, individuals make certain decisions and behave in accordance with those decisions and expectations. The culture becomes the corporate identity. This is not bad unless the corporate identity is not productive for organizational growth in the Twenty-first Century. These subcultures can restrict new mindsets and behaviors from forming and may contribute to the success or lack of success of an organization during turbulent times.

While the culture of an organization is shared, it is not the same in every part of the organization. An area of an organization may feel empowered, innovative, and free to speak up while another part of the organization could function under the somewhat antiquated command and control model of leadership. But a command and control model of leadership in one area of the organization could prevent other areas of the organization from being as successful as it could be. A demonstration of the differences that can exist within an organization is shown by the sales force being highly customer-focused but headquarter’s not assessing for customer centricity in other areas of the organization. This may be a result of the sales force being trained during face-to-face meetings on the importance of being customer-focused while other areas of the organization never have this topic addressed in training.

It has been said that an organization is designed to achieve the results that it is achieving which means that the culture of the organization limits the ability of the organization to adapt and change over time. Consequently, the culture of an organization is self-reinforcing in that the culture functions in a way that ensures the status quo remains. Since change is defined as the disruption of current expectations, the bigger the change or the more disruptive the change, the more challenging it will be for the organization to change and adapt. With the pace of change quickening in today’s complex business climate, the more change runs smack into the culture of the organization, the more likely the culture will work against the adoption of the desired incremental or transformational change.

Culture is very difficult to change and leaders, often, don’t attend to the culture as they should when confronting major organizational disruptions. The reasons may be related to the difficulty of evolving the culture, the cost of evolving the change could be seen as too high, or may be related to culture being seeing as a “soft facet” of the organization, and, therefore, not worth the focus or because there are just too many other strategic priorities on their plate.

When determining whether the culture needs to change or evolve in order to implement the organizational growth or improvement plan, one need only ask the following question: Is there a consistency between the current mindsets and behaviors present in the organization today and the mindset or behaviors required to realize the promised benefits of the change? If not, there is a gap. A gap analysis could be completed to determine the difference from the current state and the future desired state. The greater the difference between the two, the higher the risk of failure of the upcoming change initiatives without including appropriate modification of the culture. If there is a high degree of consistency between the two, the more likely the culture is to facilitate or support the upcoming change and facilitate achieving the organization’s goals.

Currently, today, there is often a need to bring an existing culture and an organizational change or transformation into better alignment in order to realize the full benefit of the manifested change. Again, the more inconsistent the current state is with the desired future state the more expensive and risky it will be to make the specified change. This is the time to assess whether the change can be altered to more accommodate the existing culture yet deliver the organizational transformations desired. It is not possible to modify the change, and the organizational change initiatives are critical to execute, then it may be time to change or work to evolve the culture.

As a change practitioner, there is value in annually assessing the organization’s culture to determine if there are simple things that can be done to manipulate the subcultures of the organization that wouldn’t cost too much money but facilitate the slight alterations or incremental changes that the organization needs to make.

Sunset in Connecticut in Fall
Sunset in Connecticut in Fall | Source

Examples of Small Positive Cultural Changes

  • Create a platform where employees feel free to speak up (it is only in this cultural climate that leaders will be able to hear the perspectives of their employees and ultimately the customers’ feedback through the employees). If even one area of the company, for example, R&D, doesn’t adopt this new subculture, this will create a cultural example for the organization of what is preventing the organization from moving forward as desired. When employees feel free to speak up, they begin to feel free to suggest innovative ideas as well. This evolves the culture forward.
  • DOT – Implement a program entitled “Do One Thing” on behalf of the employees or a subsegment of employees that can be implemented and then broadly publicized within the organization. A classic example of this is to take one thing off the plate of the managers for the sales force so that they can be more effective and efficient in their focus. Imagine the power of “doing one thing” annually for employees or a subsegment of employees? In just a few years, real change has occurred that is meaningful and lasting.
  • Create a website where employees can give accolades to their peers. Recognizing others that they work with…the marketing team, their managers, their counterparts, etc. Pats on the back are free and thanking others for their efforts creates a culture of gratitude which positively evolves the culture of the organization. Use a catchy theme for the website like “There is Cause for Applause."
  • Change the performance management system to focus on People Managers being required to keep track of employees that they developed and help get promoted. This changes the culture of the organization to one where quality discussions and dialogs are held between managers and employees and the research indicates that this always has a positive impact individuals and on the organization as a whole.
  • Get Marketing and Sales to develop a joint mission. One that is clearly demonstrative to the organization. Because although these two areas of the company should be natural colleagues, there seems to be an us vs. them reaction. A joint mission creates a meaningful way to create urgency behind action and everyone moving forward in the right direction. While this concept could have a budget placed behind it to brand the mission, this can also be run on the cheap. The mission alone signifies to employees that things are changing and the organization wants them to come along.
  • Survey and find out what your employees’ truly value? Is there something that the organization can do more of that the employees really value?
  • If the organization has meaningful work, make sure to leverage it. It is very noble to work to “think of the patient first” and an organization should leverage its every day heroes that make this possible.
  • Utilize Business Resource Groups annually to help the organization address key important topics: How the organization can make the work more meaningful? How the organization can deliver greater servant leadership to the community? How the organization can ensure a mentoring philosophy is leveraged throughout the organization? Etc.

These items can help the organization to create momentum forward and become a force to be reckoned with. Creating forward motion and momentum during change helps to ensure the realization of the incremental or transformational change effort. Every organization will at one time need the company culture to help it fulfill strategic success.

In summary, culture consists of both mindsets and behaviors and is shared by all individuals within the organization. While culture is able to provide a firm foundation in stable business environments, it can also prevent an organization from moving forward during times of turbulent change and / or organizational growth. An organization should never take the impact of the culture lightly and instead should be proactive at evolving the culture to the desired future state a little at a time. Finally, organizational cultures can either catalyze change or inhibit change. Is your organization a catalyst or an inhibitor to evolution?

A catalyst or an inhibitor?

Is Your Organizaton's Culture a Catalyst for Change or an Inhibitor of Change?

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