Leading Through Organizational Culture

As a leader, your actions must be consistent with the elements of the organizational culture you are trying to create.

Behavior that contradicts the stated organizational culture will breed cynicism. Behavior that is consistent with the culture will help strengthen it.

thumbs upWhat is organizational culture?

Former MIT Sloan School of Management professor Edgar Schein defined culture as:“… a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

Put more simply, culture is how things are done in your organization.

Why is it important?

In representing “… the prevailing ideology that people carry inside their heads,” culture “deeply affects the way organization members think, feel, and behave,”  according to Kim Sterling Cameron, a professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. This in turn greatly affects organizational effectiveness – as much as business strategy or market issues.

Cameron wrote:

“With very few exceptions, virtually every leading firm has developed a distinctive culture that is clearly identifiable by its key stakeholders. This culture is sometimes created by the initial founder of the firm (e.g. Disney or Microsoft). Sometimes it is developed consciously by management teams who decide to improve their company’s performance in systematic ways (e.g., G.E or McDonalds). But, almost all successful companies have developed something special that supersedes corporate strategy, market presence, or technological advantages. They have found the power that resides in developing and managing a unique corporate culture.”

Levels of Culture

Organizational culture consists of three interrelated levels. The first level, which is the deepest, is Assumptions about life, human nature and reality. These are developed over time in response to experience. Values exist at the second level; the principles we have, the goals we have, what we consider to be meaningful and important. At the surface are Artifacts, which visibly reveal the organizational culture’s assumptions and values. This includes the norms and patterns of behavior within the organization as well as tangible elements. In a sound culture, these attributes align.

Nike is recognized widely as a leading innovator. One of the most important parts of maintaining that reputation is building an extremely committed workforce. Nike’s Culture Statement reveals its assumptions about human nature and the relationship to work.

“We believe that a talented, diverse and inclusive employee base helps drive the creativity that is central to our brands. Our global strategy for human resources is to help unleash our employees’ potential across every area of our business by enabling leaders to make great decisions that in turn enable NIKE’s business growth.” (Nike, 2016)

Nike’s corporate values are embodied in 11 maxims; and it recruits, hires and promotes employees that demonstrate these maxims in how they work.

Nike keeps employees conscious of its history and story in several ways, including using obvious artifacts. The company keeps a Winnebago to use as a conference room in the middle of its Innovation Kitchen because, according to legend, co-founder Phil Knight sold shoes out of a similar vehicle. The waffle iron that co-founder Bill Bowerman destroyed while attempting to make rubber soles is kept on campus like a museum piece. That helps embed a sense of value, history, and shared culture in what employees are doing, according to a Business Insider story on Nike’s corporate culture.

Creating and transmitting culture – where to start

Begin by listing some of the basic assumptions that you want your organization to embody. For example, you might have the basic assumption that Better Communication = Better Effectiveness. This assumption might be translated into the value of Share Information Abundantly. The artifacts that reveal such values may include the stories shared during employee onboarding (verbal) an office layout that promotes communication and the use of company-supplied technologies to enable employees to communicate immediately (physical) and management/employee “huddles”(rituals), according to W. G. Dyer, former dean of the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University.

There are several general areas of organizational life through which culture is created and embedded; and these are good places to begin to define your assumptions and values.

Conflict – How do you want your organization to view conflict? How should conflict be managed? What norms should be established to make differences of view a benefit rather than a disadvantage?

Employee Empowerment – How are decisions made and who should be involved in what types of decisions? What are the parameters in which employees can operate creatively to achieve organizational goals? How are employees recognized and rewarded for commitment and engagement?

Accountability – Does everyone understand exactly what is expected of each position? How are goals created? How is success measured? What policies need to be in place to address aspects of accountability for all stakeholders?

Communication – Who should communicate what information to whom, in what manner at what times? Does everyone have the same understanding? What type of formality or informality should be the norm?

Once assumptions and values are defined you can conduct a culture audit of your artifacts. To what extent and in what ways do the written and verbal parts of  organizational processes (onboarding, evaluation, training, coaching,) policies (mission statement, dress code, work hours, leave and vacation, employee performance, reward system), physical aspects (space configuration, technology, aesthetics, ergonomics, artwork), rituals (meetings, recognition, stories told), and organizational norms (organizational structure, formality of interaction, preferred modes of communication) of the organization promote this type of culture you desire?

Transmitting Culture by Example

I have a friend who has been president of four private, faith-based universities. He has deeply held assumptions about being a servant leader. I was in Rick’s office one day and kidded him about how he would have to run an extra mile if he ate all the jelly beans from the jar on the desk. He told me that he really didn’t care all that much for jelly beans. The jar was there to remind him that he did not have the moral right to take a jelly bean out of anyone’s jar if he had not put one in their jar.

To Rick, recognizing the things people were doing well was putting a jelly bean in their jar. Recognizing what they were not doing well was taking a jelly bean out of their jar. Rick asked all his direct reports to email him each week with information about things any employee had done that were noteworthy—such as staying late at the registrar’s office to let a long line of students register. Rick would walk around campus every Friday to thank each employee personally; and they would receive a handwritten note from him as well as a follow up. Rick treated his relationships with everyone this way; and it was genuine.

So, I leave you with “find someone doing something right and put a jelly bean in their jar”; not a bad value and behavioral artifact for any culture.


Brian PoldingBrian Polding is the Campus College Chair of the School of Business at University of Phoenix Jacksonville.

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