An organization’s culture is a powerful thing. Culture significantly influences the way people think, behave, and relate to one another within an organization, as well as how they relate to customers and vendors. Because of this, its culture directly impacts every aspect of an organization—including its productivity and profitability.
The implication of this for leaders is, of course, serious.
Leaving an organization’s culture to chance is no more advisable than letting any other aspect of the organization fall into place on its own. Like anything else, culture must be managed to ensure alignment with the strategic goals of the organization. But it’s not an easy thing to manage. Organization culture develops over time. Once established, it takes time and often a great deal of effort to change that culture. However, there are things leaders can do to influence their organization’s culture to make it more constructive and optimal for the organization.
How Leaders Can Encourage Optimal Organization Culture
How can leaders optimize their organization culture for performance and optimal output? A few ideas come to mind:
- Aligning organization choices to influence company culture. The organization choices a company makes reinforces its culture for better or for worse. One powerful way for leaders to encourage a particular behavior or cultural expression is to consider cultural implications in their decision making. For instance, leaders who want to encourage collaboration might ask themselves: “have I made choices in the organization that encourage people to work together?” This can include things like defining jobs in such a way that they are collaborative in nature or designing work processes so that handoffs are clearly defined.
- Modeling desired cultural behavior. People naturally look to leaders as role models for their own behavior. The way in which leaders lead and model certain behaviors can have significant and far-reaching impact on their organization culture. We have seen situations, for example, in which leaders talk a lot about ideals such as engagement, the importance of employee contribution, listening, everyone having a voice, etc. Sometimes, leaders say these things but fail to live up to them. A leader who talks a good game about engagement but is not listening, not tuned in, and absent or inaccessible is effectively giving lip service to important cultural dimensions. Actions speak louder than words and this type of leader tends to create cultural dilemmas rather than solutions. On the other hand, a leader who demonstrates integrity in connection with their cultural expectations will usually inspire others to take company culture to heart.
- Holding people accountable to culture. What happens when someone violates the cultural expectations of your organization in some manner? In many organizations, people tend to look the other way. When someone does something that’s a little off track instead of pulling the individual aside and saying “Are you aware that this behavior is off track,” or “This feels a little awkward, what’s going on?” the tendency is to ignore it or look the other way—at least on the surface. Behind the scenes, however, it’s another story. Some might talk or gossip behind the person’s back. Others might simply stand by and let them experience the career consequences of their cultural faux pas, often without the person ever realizing what went wrong. A strong leader is not afraid to come forward and say “you need to be aware that your behavior is not reflecting the culture and values we have around here, or “here’s what needs to change.”
3 Key Cultural Alignment Questions for Leaders
Regularly asking these three questions can help leaders more easily influence their company culture in ways that support the goals and values of the organization:
- Are there any areas in my organization where choices are not set up to reinforce our ideal culture and our strategy?
- Am I and other leaders in my organization acting in ways that are consistent with the values and beliefs our organization considers important?
- Are people in our organization made aware of it when their actions or behaviors fall out of alignment with expected or desired culture, and are they held accountable?
Leaders who consciously put these principles into practice will be in a position to guide and shape their organization culture to be a powerful influence on their organization that impacts it in many positive ways.