Organizational culture — the shadow of behavior and intent

The culture is in the walls” people say. But, no — it’s not. The culture is in the people and people only.

Do you struggle with the concept of organizational culture?

Many leaders do. It’s abstract, intangible, difficult. And still is it something almost everyone in a company think matters and have an opinion about.

The thing is, you cannot change culture directly. Just like a shadow is the result of an object in front of a light, culture is the result of something else: behavior and intent.

Behavior is like the object, and could be summarized in what you do, what you say, what you don’t do and what you don’t say. Obviously actions are important, but actions alone don’t define the culture.

The intent is what drives behavior, what motivation and desire people have for doing and saying things. It does matter why you are doing — or not doing — whatever you do.

Which perspective you have, do matter.

Just like the light can change the shadow completely if you move or adjust it, changing the intent could change the culture as well. And just like a shadow, the culture becomes diffused and unclear if you have multiple behaviors and intents within an organization, and disappears completely if it does not seem to be any intent at all.

If you want to change culture, you either need to change peoples behavior or intent — or most likely — both. Changing your own behavior once is fairly easy, making it last — creating a habit — is extremely difficult. Making others create new habits is impossible. The only person you actually are able to change, is yourself.

So how can we change culture then? By making people change themselves.

The intent is our keyword. Beneath it, we have things like systems, policies, incentives and combinations of these that regulate behavior — implicitly and explicitly. We have already mentioned motivation and desire, and these are important too.

It is much easier to make people change their behavior, if they are really motivated and desire the change. We cannot control motivation and desire, though, but among these there are certain components you as a leader have direct control over. Leaders can change policies, systems and incentives, and can choose how toenforce them. As Gruener and Whitaker expressed it in School Culture Rewired:

“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

When people think it’s a bad culture, it’s usually when what’s said and what’s done are not aligned. If the leader says that everyone have to be at office to 4 and enforces it, but takes a half day off every now and then her/himself, it’s bad. When what’s said, what’s done (and not said and not done) is aligned, we arefar better off.

Actions do not stand alone, though. It does actually matter whether I give you something because I want to be kind, rather that someone told me I should or if someone forces me to. The intent should be aligned too, and preferably be good.

The very most powerful tool for culture change though, is the example of the top leader.

By nature, people follow leaders. That’s why they are called leaders. If the top leader leaves office at 4 every Friday, most people will stay at the office until 4 too, even if there are no fixed working hours. If the top leader regularly takes a half day off on Fridays, the employees will do the same if not being corrected.

It’s maybe the one hardest to master too, as it requires the top leader to change him/herself. My highly undocumented statement, is that most organizations struggling with culture change, struggle because the top leader is not willing (or able) to change his/her own behavior.

Microsoft has formalized this internally in their growth leadership framework — Model — Coach — Care. It starts on the very top, with Satya Nadella himself, and the intent of creating an environment where everyone feel safe, trusted and valued. As Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer, says: “When webring out the best in each person, we bring out the best in our teams.”

The framework is very simple, and consists essentially of three expectations:

  • Leaders are expected to be models of culture, values and leadership
  • Leaders are expected to coach their employees to unlock their potential
  • Leaders are expected to care about employees’ unique needs and experiences.

It provides guidance in how to do this too, but essentially it only requires leaders to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. They should create learning opportunities, then protect team’s time and space to learn. And they should care, both on a personal and professional level. If they take care of their employees, the employees take care of the customers, as Richard Branson has said.

Many people would find it hard to have a management framework enforced. However, there are two crucial elements that make it much easier to swallow: The intent is positive and crystal clear, and your own leader should do the same to you.

It is simply a tool to bring out the best in everyone, including yourself. If you feel that the intent is aligned with what’s said and done, and you like it, it’s much easier to change as well.

An important reminder though — doing this in real life is not so easy as it sounds. If you’ve been a leader — or a parent — you’ve probably experienced it.

As with all change, successful and lasting culture change requires that you overcome the human psychology of change. It’s much more likely to change the organizational culture, if you are able to create awareness of why it’s needed, create a desire to change, build required knowledge and ability, and establish the required mechanisms to reinforce it. Consistency and alignment are amongst the latter. Most of all because they make the culture feel right, and makes it easier to establish new habits.

Feelings are powerful, and leaders have been using feelings as a tool for centuries. In history, fear has been the dominating tool, and many tough leaders have had great success using it. However, the recent war in Ukraine has shown for the entire world that positive feelings are as powerful as fear (which was “proven” in the Pixar movie Monsters Inc. too…). The Ukrainian President Zelensky demonstrated the encouragement of feelings, and power of alignment of behavior and intent. What we now see, is an increasing consciousness of the importance of empathy. Understanding the feelings and emotional response of both customers and employees has become an essential leadership competency.

If you would like a top performing company, building a great organizational culture should be your first priority. And it starts with you as a top leader. Everyone is looking on you, even when you are not there. Everything you do — or not do — will be measured against your words, policies and perceived intents — and when it comes to all — what feelings you trigger in your people.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

About me:

I am a business agility professional living outside Oslo in Norway and write mainly about innovation, agile leadership and business agility.

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