Culture is like a big invisible lever that moves your organisation and impacts productivity, retention, customer satisfaction and much more. Once you see the lever, you can begin to adjust it and move your organisation in new directions. Once you understand what culture is, you have the lever to create that movement.
Have you ever been in the woods, walking on a trail? If so you know that while you see the trees in front of you it is hard to describe the whole forest. At that moment, the forest for you is the trees - because you just see the trees around you. Patterns, dimension and perspective are hard to recognise when all you see are ... trees.
Organisational culture is a bit like that. You go to work every day and just see the work. Over time, you realise there are certain norms or approaches that are just accepted facts; they are "how we do work around here". If you have worked in more than one place you might start to see the differences from one place to the next, and if so, you are starting to "see" what culture means.
Organisational culture is ...
- How we do things around here
If you want to be successful quickly in a new job, find a person that can help you understand "how things are done around here". It is about policies and procedures. To be sure, those things written down say something about the beliefs of the organisation. But the things not written down are even more powerful. It's one thing for the training to say we return customer emails within the business day - but when do they really get answered?
- The stories we are told
If the stories you hear repeated officially and unofficially in the organisation are about heroic actions of employees to serve customers, that says something about the culture relating to customers. If you hear stories about product shipping regardless of the standards, because "we have to make our numbers", that says something too. There are stories in every organisation and their messages become a part of the culture. Oh, and what do we do when we hear a story? Tell it to someone else. And the culture deepens.
- The behaviours that get you promoted
Do people get promoted because they are ruthless in pursuit of personal status and glory? Are people promoted because of tenure or length of service? Or are people promoted because they have ability to do the next job? The behaviours that lead to promotion - that define success - are an embedded part of the culture. And leaders hear this clearly - it is the perceptions of which behaviours get you promoted that are at least as important as the reality.
- The values the organisation lives by
Most organisations of any size or age have a stated set of values. They are on the wall in the conference room, discussed in orientation and onboarding processes, and posted proudly on websites. These are a part of the culture - but only to the degree that they are lived. Stories, examples and personal observation define the true values, regardless of what is written down. And these values-in-action are a cornerstone of your organisational culture.
The list could be longer and the examples more detailed. The point is that organisational culture matters because it is pervasive and powerful. There is no such thing as an organisation, group, team, or family that doesn't have a culture. The key as a leader is to recognise what your culture is (and you may not see it clearly), and take responsibility for adjusting it to better support the goals and objectives that you have.
Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world". You don't need to move the world, just your organisation.
The leader's role in creating culture
There are some common misconceptions about where culture comes from and who is responsible for it. Because of these misconceptions too many leaders ignore or deny their role. Let me start with three facts that will dispel those misconceptions:
- Culture belongs to all leaders, not just the C-Suite
If you think that culture is the sole responsibility of senior leadership, you are mistaken. Every leader has a role to play in creating, nurturing and maintaining the organisational culture. In fact, to individual employees, their boss is in many ways the face of the culture and the biggest contributing factor to it. Which means that ...
- No one does it alone
Culture is about "how things are done around here", and every leader impacts that. After all, if you are in an organisation of any size, how often do most employees directly interact with senior managers? They interact far more regularly with their boss or manager. And because of this, even if you as a leader don't think you have a responsibility for your organisational culture, the reality is that ...
- You are impacting the culture with everything you do
Culture creation isn't an initiative and it isn't static. Yes, the basic constructs of any organisational culture exist based on the past experiences of people; the culture is always fluid and always adjusting, based on the examples, situations and actions of everyone in the organisation, especially the leaders.
Once you realise these facts, that you do have some influence over the organisational culture, the logical question is, what can I do, from where I am, to have a positive impact on changing the culture for the better (or even maintaining the components that are great)?
Six specific ideas for culture creation
- Get clear on your vision for the culture
Yes this can happen organisationally, but you don't have to wait. Have a clear image of what you are trying to create for your particular team, office, department, or division.
- Behave intentionally
Ghandi said to "be the change you want to see in the world". Only you can own your behaviour, and people are paying more attention than you might realise. Make sure your behaviour matches the culture you want to reinforce.
- Consider your attitude
Whatever your vision for your culture, remember that your attitude will play a significant part in it.
- Create clear expectations
While your behaviour is a starting and reinforcing point, you must let others know what behaviours you are looking for and coach to them and hold people accountable for them.
- Make culture part of your decision-making process
When making decisions, large and small, ask yourself how that decision will impact the culture you are trying to create.
- Hire based on your desired culture
One important decision you make is when you bring people into your team or organisation. Make sure you consider your culture when you hire. Will the person fit and will they contribute naturally to the culture you are nurturing?
Even now, near the end of this article, you may be thinking that your impact on a large organisational culture may be small. Perhaps this is true. When you feel discouraged or powerless, consider that the most important part of a culture is what it is like to work where you are, with the people you interact with every day.
Have you ever noticed how water responds to a pebble being dropped into it? Ripples form, in concentric and ever widening circles. Yes, the ripples get smaller as they disperse, but they do grow. In matters of organisational culture as an individual leader, manager or supervisor, you are the pebble, while your impact is greatest closest to you, your behaviour will impact culture more directly and in greater ways than you realise.