Is Your Culture by Default or by Design?

We’re continuing to get feedback, questions, and comments about culture development following my 60 minute webcast on November 4. If you missed the whirlwind “city bus tour,” you can view the archived presentation (my animated slides synchronized with the audio track) at Leading a Peak Performance Culture.

Organization Culture by Design or DefaultOne viewer sent me a good question after the webcast:

“Do you believe an organization has one type of culture throughout the entire organization/company, or do you believe an organization has differing cultural bubbles according to each department or management team because of varying people’s behaviour, management and leadership style?”

Depending on the size, geographic spread, and structure, we’ve found organizational culture exists at three levels. The first level is the immediate work team. This is where everyone working in an organization has his or her up close and personal contact with culture.

We define culture as “the way we do things around here — especially when the boss isn’t around.” How do we treat our internal/external customers? How much and when do we work together? Are our daily conversations full of doom and gloom, petty gossip, and ‘we-they’ acrimony? Or are we mostly positive, supportive, and full of can-do spirit? Do meetings and emails drain energy and waste time or are they key tools leveraging our effectiveness?

All of these team behaviors are most heavily influenced by the leadership skills of the unit or team’s immediate supervisor. He or she can build a strong team culture inside a larger negative culture or can make a mockery of the larger organization’s peak performance culture. The way to change a team’s culture is to change the supervisor’s leadership approach — or to change the supervisor.

Each team leader or supervisor gets his or her direction, support, skills, leadership example — or lack thereof — from the larger department or division he or she is part of. Some team leaders or supervisors are exceptionally strong leaders and build thriving peak performance local cultures even if the bigger culture they’re part of, and leader they report to, are weak. We’ve seen some very powerful and inspiring examples of these “islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity” over the years.

The vast majority of supervisors reflect the values, skills, and behaviors of the department or division. This points straight at the managers’ cultural leadership skills. Are they racing from meeting to meeting, buried in emails, and personally putting out many fires? Or are they building strong capabilities in their teams, delegating daily operations, and coaching supervisors and team leaders toward higher performance? Do they relentlessly focus everyone on customers, service/ quality, safety — or whatever the department/division’s “strategic imperatives” might be? Are vision, mission, or values just words from above or do they vibrantly live in all key people decisions like hiring, promotions/succession planning, recognition/appreciation/celebration practices, and tough actions like discipline or letting someone go? Departmental or division managers can shape their culture (leading), sit back and wait for direction from above (following), or throw up their hands in frustration at executives’ lack of culture leadership (wallowing).

The organizational culture ripples out from the executive team leading it. The research shown in the Leading a Peak Performance Culture webcast is overwhelming and very clear: The single biggest key to transforming an organization’s culture starts with executives defining and developing their own behaviors. This must then cascade down the entire organization. Anchored around core values (no more than five), behavioral descriptions are the foundation for competency models, training programs, hiring/promotion criteria, reward and recognition, and such.

Every team and organization has a culture — a routine or habitual “way of doing things around here” — especially when no supervisor, manager, or executive is around. Whether you’re focused on a unit/team, department/division, or entire organization, the key questions asked in Leading a Peak Performance Culture are:

  • What’s your culture?
  • How do you know?
  • Is it by design?

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