There is a growing acknowledgement of the link between the type of culture that exists in an organisation, the level of personal engagement and the organisation’s overall success. However, only few organisations cracked the secret of how to move their culture and leverage it for strategic advantage.
In response to a previous post, I was asked a question about culture. While being a very popular topic on the leadership agenda I feel that clarity on what it is and what to do with it will be helpful. In this post, I bring together some of the simpler and, in my view, more comprehensive researches. I hope to turn the culture conversation from a “fluffy/ too hard/ nice to have…“, into a useful tool for both individuals and organisations growth.
Definition of culture
Culture is not posters on the walls, what the CEO declares as the new way, the managers’ personal style, or what is agreed in the strategic plan. Herb Kelleher (founder of southwest airlines) describe it as “…It’s not formulaic. The way I describe it is this huge mosaic that you’re always adding little pieces to make it work. And it’s not a job that you do for six months and then you just say, “Well, that’s behind us.” It’s something you do every day”
Culture is defined by the attitudes and behaviours of the majority of people in the organisation. this includes what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within the group. It is the day to day of the collective, and because of that, it is hard to change. Culture is the how in which strategy is executed. Culture can support and promote the organisation strategy or hinder it. When aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash significant amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and a thriving organisation.
- Culture stage can be described by the words most people use in the organisation in relation to the way people interact with each other and the way in which they respond to change.
- Culture is an evolutionary process. As such, with intentional effort leadership can evolve an organisation’s culture. However like with any evolution, you can’t skip stages, you can’t stabilise the change until a tipping point is achieved, and you can’t time it.
- Since culture is a group phenomenon, most people in the organisation should be at the same stage to allow evolution. But, for exactly the same reason, unstable culture can disintegrate into lower stages.
- People “fit” into the different cultures is described in a similar way using personality traits. Note that for earlier stages of cultures, “fit” is achieved through fear vs. the individual’s preferences.
- Inherent in the framework are fundamental trade-offs. Although each cultural value can be beneficial on its own, natural constraints and competing demands force difficult choices about which values to emphasise and how people are expected to behave.
The dominating culture across the western world is the culture of stage 3. The achievement worldview profoundly shapes today’s management practices. Most business leaders, MBA programs and management thinking are shaped by the hallmarks of this culture. Hence, when considering a shift from stage 3 to 4 it is particularly challenging because the current culture had served the organisations well for many years. Since the industry emphasises efficiency and results, this culture is perceived by most management as a strength.
However, this culture that created the prosperity of the modern world is also the one that is depleting the world’s natural resources and destroying the ecosystems upon which our survival depends. It is the culture of few winners and increasing inequality. It is a culture that is solely materialistic and that does not answer to humans longing for meaning and being part of something bigger.
People and organisations that have chosen to evolve to be part of a culture that operates at stage 4 and 5 report feeling more alive and having more fun, learning becomes effortless and stress goes down, engagement is consistently high hence people seek employment in the company and stay, taking the company a long way toward having the talents to succeed.
Descriptions of each stage
Historically, organisations emerged when tribes organised to attack neighbouring tribes. Today this culture still exists in organisations like the Mafia or drug-dealing street gangs. Other examples are enterprises where founder-bosses do whatever it takes to succeed. They get involved in everything, regardless of structures or processes that would constrain their ability to “get things done”.
At this stage of cultural evolution, people are united by the fear and basic instincts of survival. When they are together, they form isolated gangs with absolute loyalty to the group. The theme of their words is that life has given them a bad deal, so it’s ok to do whatever it takes to survive.
Organisations at this stage have clear ranks up the hierarchical pyramid. Many armies, religious institutions, government agencies, public school systems, and universities are still run today along the lines of this culture. They often operate on the hidden assumption that there is one right way of doing things, that the world should not change, and that lifelong employment should be the norm.
The focus of this culture is on predictability, risk consciousness and careful planning, respect, structure, and shared norms.
Under the protection of rules and traditions, people usually do the minimum to get by, showing almost no initiative or passion. Passive-aggressive behaviour is the norm, i.e. people spend their time ignoring the organisation directives while telling people in charge that they are on board.
At this cultural stage, the organisation metaphor is the organisation as a machine. The people in the organisation use the language of units and layers, inputs and outputs, efficiency and effectiveness, information flows and bottlenecks, Humans are resources, re-engineering and rightsizing.
In this culture, the values are authority and results. The culture is characterised by achievement and winning, strength, decisiveness, and boldness.
The work environments are competitive places where people strive to gain personal advantage and aspire to achieve top performance. People engage in anything that’s going on, with energy and commitment, but when you listen closely, they talk mostly about themselves and focus on appearing smarter and better than others. People operating in this stage usually complain that they don’t have enough time or support and that the people around them aren’t as good or as committed as they are. Winning is all that matters, and winning is personal.
At stage four, the organisation language is about family or a community. Where everyone has a place, where colleagues look after one another, where the happiness of every member is important to the organisation’s overall success. The leaders in this culture often strive to inspire employees to great things, leading them to outperform more traditional command-and-control organisations.
This culture value Learning and Enjoyment characterised by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity often expressed through fun and excitement. Work environments are inventive and open-minded places where people generate new ideas and explore alternatives and where people tend to do what makes them happy.
People form partnerships and operate as part of teams that are focused around shared values and has a common purpose. People build relationships based on shared values and the language is about what is the right thing to do, not what is good for me.
There are very few organisations that operate consistently at stage 5. If you listen to the leaders of these organisations, they talk about their organisation as a living organism or a living system (as opposed to a machine or a family). In this culture, people collaborate and work toward a noble cause, propelled from their values.
In this culture, leadership has a different role. When Jos de Blok (Buurtzog) was asked how is he motivating the people that work for Buurtsog his answer was ” I am not. This is a sort of patronizing, I think. My most important assignment is to keep out all the problems so that people can do their work”.
The culture is of caring and purpose. Caring focuses on relationships and mutual trust. Work environments are warm, collaborative, and welcoming places where people help and support one another. Loyalty unites the employees; Purpose is exemplified by idealism and altruism. Work environments are tolerant, compassionate places where people try to do good for the long-term future of the world.
In this culture, the group is focused on creating a better world not about winning over the competition. People talk about limitless potential, caped only by the imagination and the group commitment. People in this culture can find a way to work with almost anyone, as long as their commitment to values is at the same intensity as their own. There is almost no fear, stress, or workplace conflict.
Evolving organisation’s culture is not easy; however, it is one of the only few levers left with leaders who want to create a long-term sustainable and impactful organisation. Leadership has a critical role in enabling the desired culture. In order to shift a culture, you have to consider the following:
- Accurately assess your own and your organisation’s cultural stage. Understand what outcomes different cultures produce and how it does or doesn’t align with the current and anticipated market and business conditions. When designing a target culture, it has to be in context and relate to tangible problems
- Foster leadership that is more culturally advanced than the organisation current stage. The leaders must align with the values of the target culture and committed to personal growth.
- Be able to understand and talk all culture stages languages as you enable the evolution of the individuals which might be at different stages.
- Be ready to shift your concept of leadership. At stage 4 and 5 leaders have no directive power, their primary role is to “hold the space” for the culture to emerge and that no earlier stages practices creep back in.
@Hadas Wittenberg is a future of work enabler and founder of Adaptive-Futures
Boris Groysberg, J. L.-J. (January – February 2018). The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture. HBR.