During his introductory remarks, the presenter asked “What is organizational culture?”. After a momentary silence, someone to my right called out “Complicated!”. Soft chuckles, muffled sighs and wry smiles bloomed around the room. Complicated, indeed.
Surely these complications are the dark work of consultants, academics and scribes, actively conspiring to relieve baffled and bewildered business leaders of their hard-won profits and reputations. On the other hand, perhaps it’s our built-in tendency to get caught up in the details and minutia – failing to see the forest, for the trees.
To honour the oft-misquoted H.L. Mencken (“…there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong”), I’ll avoid jumping straight to any conclusion; instead, let me reframe the question.
Actually, I’m going to change the question. While the presenter’s query is of academic interest, to me the important question facing leaders is “What is OUR culture?”. Survey sellers and data analysts salivate over questions like this – their bread and butter. Before getting out the churn and sticking a loaf in the oven, let me suggest that addressing this question is best approached by acquiring the answers to two others
What do we promote?
We need to be acutely aware of what we declare – publicly or behind closed doors – about ourselves and about our organizations. These declarations might be quite overt and obvious (such as published mission statements, values and guiding principles) or somewhat less so (such as the criteria we actually apply for incentive pay and job promotions, the things we celebrate, and the manner in which we communicate important things throughout the organization).
What do we permit?
This is very much the “unspoken” dimension to our culture. Many leaders (and not only those at the top of the org chart), arguing that “life is not black and white, there is a lot of grey area” create a culture of permissiveness that erodes and threatens to invalidate what we declare ourselves to be. The most commonly cited example is the “star” sales rep who leaves a trail of broken processes, policies and professional relationships – and does so year after year, because “Pat brings in the numbers”.
As an admired colleague and sometime co-conspirator would say, culture is evident in, and shaped by, the stories told about us – the stories we tell about ourselves, and those which are told by others. Further, he would maintain that if you aren’t actively investing in shaping and telling your story, someone else will be doing it for you. And they might not have your best interests at heart.
What’s a leader to do?
Talk to people in your organization. Ask those two questions, listen intently to their answers and encourage candour. Connect with people who have left the organization voluntarily in the recent past, if you can, and ask them the same questions. Compare what you hear, to your own impressions.
Reflect, share and discuss with your leadership team, and agree on an appropriate plan of action. As time passes, continue to ask the questions and see what, if anything, is changing – and in what direction.