View from the top: why leaders need to concentrate on culture

Organisational culture continues to be surrounded by mystique, misinformation and myth. Richard Nugent attempts to provide some clarity around its definition and offers two key reasons why leaders must treat the development and maintenance of workplace culture as a key part of their job

Time and again, I see organisations following well-worn paths to cultural failure in the absence of solid models of best practice. If you were to ask people throughout your organisation what is meant by culture, you would likely get a range of answers, including:

● how we act

● how it feels to work here

● what is important to the business

● how we treat each other

● how we all show up (especially the bosses)

In fact, organisational culture is a combination of all of these things plus a little bit more. It certainly includes how it feels to work here and what we will tolerate. It is often shaped and demonstrated by the decisions we make and don’t make. It also manifests in how we show up for each other and treat each other, especially when the pressure is on.

However, there is another vital component that is regularly overlooked. How we actually go about doing the work is as much an indicator of culture as anything else. The policies, processes and procedures you and your colleagues follow are themselves a gauge of your organisation’s culture, as is the degree to which they are followed or not.

A working definition

The fact that these indicators combine to create the culture is why this is my favourite definition of culture: “Culture is how we ‘be’around here”. This may not be a perfect use of the English language, but it is the most accurate way I have found to bring all of the facets of organisational culture together into one solid definition.

Many play into the commonly shared view that “culture is everyone’s job”, but this view is too simplistic for such a complex area. We have to recognise that culture is modelled from the top of the organisation, and this modelling by leaders must continue if your desired culture is going to survive and thrive the rigours of organisational life.

Here are two reasons why leaders must see culture as their job. First off, culture will only survive when the leadership community are committed and aligned. When working with clients to help them anchor a new culture, we share the risks of hedging.

In cultural terms, hedging is when leaders take a metaphorical and sometimes physical step back to protect their reputation in case the new culture does not take hold. What they don’t realise or acknowledge is the disastrous impact that their hedging has on the potential new culture. It is completely self-perpetuating. Because those involved don’t want to be attached to a culture change programme that doesn’t stick, they don’t fully engage. Because they don’t fully engage, the programme doesn’t stick.

The opposite of cultural hedging is side-bet theory. Based on the work of Howard Becker in the 1960s, side-bet theory tells us that when every single executive is ready to risk their reputation on the new culture taking hold, this significantly increases the chances of the culture change programme delivering a successful outcome.

How to performance manage based on culture

I have believed for a long time now that the most challenging problem for the majority of managers is the high performer with the wrong attitude. One of the most-read articles I have ever written is entitled, Why a brilliant jerk will ruin your team. High-performing or experienced people who are culturally misaligned are hugely damaging if not challenged.

Not only do they chip away at your whole culture with their actions and behaviours, but they also give other people permission to do the same. Perhaps worst of all, if left unchecked, they provide a cue to the people with the right attitudes and behaviours that it is time to leave. Over time you lose more of your good people, giving more power to those who don’t act in the right way and inevitably your culture shifts for the worse.

While this can be a complex challenge, leaders must grasp the gauntlet of taking those people who don’t demonstrate the right cultural trails. This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘nice to do’; it is a must to do. The reality is that if the culture isn’t supporting the organisation’s strategic goals, it will be a blocker to achieving them. Those demonstrating and driving unhelpful behaviours must be addressed by their leaders.

While we may want to believe the mantra that culture is everyone’s business, the reality is that those of us in leadership positions carry the responsibility to encourage, engage and enable others to live and breathe the culture. Our choice isn’t whether we do this, but instead the energy and importance that we assign to it.

Richard Nugent is the author of The alignment advantage: transform your strategy, culture customers and something to succeed

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