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A Leader’s Role in Culture Creation

by Kevin Eikenberry on July 25, 2011

in Leadership, Learning, Teams

Organizational culture gets talked about a lot by people discussing success in organizations. It is rightly considered an important determining factor in measurements including retention, job satisfaction, trust levels, productivity and much more. Yet 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 the senior leadership, you are mistaken. Every leader has a role to play in creating, nurturing and maintain the organizational 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 organization 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 organizational 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 organizational 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 organization, especially the leaders.

Once you realize these facts, that you do have some influence over the organizational 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)? Here are six specific ideas.

Get clear on your vision for the culture. Yes this can happen organizationally, but you don’t have to wait. Have a clear image of what you are trying to create, at home or 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 behavior, and people are paying more attention than you might realize. Make sure your behavior 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 behavior is a starting and reinforcing point, you must let others know what behaviors 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 organization. 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 organizational 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 organizational culture as an individual leader, manager or supervisor, you are the pebble, while your impact is greatest closest to you, your behavior will impact culture more directly and in greater ways than you realize.

photo credit Sanath
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek Irvine, Globoforce July 25, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Great article, Kevin. I would add — frequently, specifically and very intentionally recognize employees when they behave in ways that reinforce your culture. In many organizations these desired behaviors are codified in the “company values,” but sadly, these values remain little more than a plaque on the wall. To proactively create and manage a culture in which employees thrive and choose to engage – a culture of recognition and appreciation – encourage all employees to notice and appreciate each other when they demonstrate those values in their daily work. This makes the values real in the day-to-day tasks of employees and helps them see how their efforts contribute to achieving a bigger picture (leading to a sense of meaningful work, but that’s a comment for
another day).

The power of company culture is a frequent topic in my own blog. Here’s a recent post discussing Zappos’ Culture Book for 2010: http://www.recognizethisblog.com/2011/07/would-you-publish-your-company-culture-in-a-free-book/

My CEO and I wrote a book on this — Winning with a Culture of Recognition — that dives into this much more deeply, including the strategies and tactics to foster and manage such a culture and case studies of success. http://www.recognitionculture.com

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Kevin Eikenberry July 26, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Derek – I completely agree with you – 100% – very well said.

Kevin :)

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Jacob Weinfeld July 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Too often leaders think that the companies culture lives in the quotes on the wall, the architecture of the office space, and the names of the awards given out at the end of the year. While these things can support a good culture, what it really comes down to is actions. When leaders at every level of the organization take actions to support and intentional or unintentional culture that becomes, as you say Kevin, “how things are done around here.”

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Danni March 5, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Jacob – so right. People look to ‘the top’ and the central figures in an office to see how things are done. So many businesses I have been exposed to expect one set of behaviours from their teams and permit another from management. In todays world of flatter hierarchies and de-layering this dualist behaviour causes confusion and de-stabilises cultures.

Another great article Kevin. Thanks

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