Exploring organisational cultures

Three critical questions guiding you as a leader of culture

17 March 2023

In the second chapter of our series on culture explorations, we will explore three questions that will help get you started on leading the organisational culture. Essentially, we believe that leading your organisational culture will help you align your organisation’s identity, behaviours and supporting context, ensuring that culture is supported and supportive of your business and people.

Culture is a tree

In the first chapter of our culture explorations series, we ventured into the land of metaphors. We searched for ways to visualise culture in a clear way while instigating a sense of how to approach culture when dealing with it in an organisational setting.

Our exploration led us to the organic elements of wind, water and icebergs, depicting culture as constantly moving, with hidden traits and uncontrollable powers leading it. From these inspirations, we created our own metaphor, ultimately settling on a tree.

The roots of an organisation extend deep into its foundational values and emerging attentions, nurturing the organisation from the ground up. The stem of the tree represents the organisation’s leaders who channel beliefs and values and interpret how they should influence daily work life. Finally, the crown of the tree is represented by its branches and leaves, stretching upward as initiatives and priorities that influence the organisation’s overall narrative and serve as landmarks for those navigating the cultural landscape.

Explaining the tree

THE CROWN: The crown represents the initiatives you need to grow right now for the values, beliefs to manifest and what the stem (leadership) is emphasising to nurture this growth. It is the guiding beacon for those who decide to invest themselves in your organisation and the crucial cross-over from a nice story on who we are to proof that we know how to walk the talk.

We look to the stem as that/those who should ensure that the below values, beliefs and emerging attentions are channelled to the right places. Often, we see leaders as being the ones pointed to lead a culture. After all, it is well known that the perceived culture by employees is heavily defined by the actions and values of leaders. However, being a leader in modern organisations is not just by title, experience or rank. It is just as much about knowing when to step forward and take charge, state your opinion and lead by example for any member of the organisation.

Being in closer contact with environment essentially means that these roots must adapt in more ways than the lower level would do. The upper roots in culture represents the emerging parts of your culture. The prerequisites for thriving under current conditions. Such emerging parts could be diversity, work-life balance, resilience and psychological safety.

The deepest roots are the very core of what your organisation is. The values on which it was founded and the beliefs which comprise the common narrative of what your organisation represents. The roots are difficult to alter as any intervention at this level will fundamentally change and might even kill what is growing above them.

Cultivating the culture tree

Now we have established the metaphor of the culture tree. But what is our role in leading culture? We believe that anyone with a sound mind and a membership to the inside of your organisation could potentially lead culture at some point.

However, we emphasise the need for gardening the culture tree. Obviously, a tree will grow in its natural way if not tended to. But if we want culture to influence the organisation in the intended way, we must tend to what is nurtured, channelled and growing.

This role of a cultivator exists both in parallel and as part of those who lead the culture. As cultivators, we are leaders of culture who ensure that what grows aligns with other aspects, such as strategy. We also consider the influencing contextual elements, and we recruit leaders to provide the energy and direction for others.

The law of three: Identity, Context and Behaviour

What do you need to do when leading culture? We explored some of the key areas of attention that leaders are advised to follow when dealing with culture and essentially realised that leadership and culture are intertwined with each other, and with neither preceding the other. But also, that leadership is essential when spearheading an organisational change.

Leadership influences organisational culture

One study1 found that leadership has a greater influence on culture than culture has on leadership. This notion speaks volumes to the crucial role of leadership, as it suggests that an individual’s experience of the organisation’s culture is more influenced by the traits of their nearest leader than by what is written in the cultural manifesto. Therefore, aligning your cultural vision with those who are leading it will be critical for success. To achieve this, we formulated three questions that can help leadership align with the cultural vision:

  • How do we define success? (Identity)
  • What guides us to success? (Context)
  • How do I behave to succeed? (Behaviour)

Interconnecting these questions, we have synthetised and summarised our favourite culture models into one very simple model comprising three aspects where culture is represented and transformed: identity, context and behaviour. These three areas are causally linked and will influence each other if one is altered. For better or for worse.

1 Densten, Iain, Leadership and its impact on organizational culture, Article in Journal of International Business Studies, January 2002

Identity: What we are

In our culture model, the aspect of identity looks to the norms, logics, relations, beliefs, assumptions and narratives within the organisation. How do we perceive and understand the organisation, the types of collegial relationships we have and the story we share about who we are? These are all components of how we identify with the organisation. They are all pieces in the overall culture puzzle.

When it comes to identity, the critical question is: how do we define success?

The stories we tell new hires, our basic assumptions about risk, collaboration and hierarchy as well as the symbols and metaphors we use all reveal what we consider to be right, better and aspirational – whether expressed explicitly or implicitly. And it all makes up your answer to what a great company or even the good life ought to be.

The aspect of identity is determined to guide both the contextual and behavioural aspect of the organisation, and it should be found at the fundamental areas of your organisation; in the roots of the culture tree.

Example: Defining success through your company’s culture

We recently encountered a modern tech organisation founded with the goal of aiding humankind in increasing productivity through its IT solutions while also prioritising mental well-being. This focus was not only evident in the products but also in the conversations and attentions nurtured internally.

In this organisation, success is not solely defined as meeting the sales numbers. It also includes achieving high scores in mental health and bringing customers to a better place through the product.

Leaders encourage conversations about employee well-being and prioritise reasonable work hours. The belief that well-rested people are productive people is communicated, and discussions that go beyond the task at hand are encouraged.

Success is defined by the foundation of your company’s culture. The deepest roots and those just underneath the soil tell a story of how a member of the organisation will identify with your success criteria. Leaders should resonate with these criteria and ensure that they are explicitly communicated. Leaders should be aligned on how we define success.

Context: What we have

When having defined success, you need to support it through contextual interventions; the things we have that support us in succeeding. The question then becomes; “How do you support and steer incentives and guide your organisation towards success?”

The critical question regarding the aspect of context, “What guides us to success?”, must be aligned with the definition of success. Otherwise, conflicting interests may arise.

Obtaining success in an organisation is defined within the structures designed by those in charge. We know from behavioural science that individuals constantly seek the path of least resistance and of highest value.

Guiding individuals in your organisation towards success, you can use incentives that are formal expressions of what we believe drives success and is desirable in an organisation.

If an incentives programme focuses more on measuring individual performance rather than the collective impact, then you are bound to have colleagues who will look to succeed on their own rather than as a team. If this rests on a basic assumption that success ultimately arises at the level of individuals, your guidance aligns with your beliefs in success.

If you incentivise individuals but culturally praise teamwork, you may need to address any misalignment that takes up organisational resources due to lack of clarity and unity. If your process requires input from various areas of the organisation to provide an output, then you support a culture of high interdependence in the workplace.

Leading culture requires you to understand how the roots of culture define the paths to success. Understanding this, you can now become the architect of how this success is best obtained and supported through incentives, processes, organisational layout, physical environment and other aspects of the context of culture.

Example: Balancing incentives and values

Consider the case of a bank who defines success as bringing a transparent and honest approach to handling customers’ money with a long-term investment perspective.

The aspect of identity is built on strong loyalty to the customer’s needs but with compliance to handling things by the book to avoid major mishaps. The critical question to context, however, identifies a strong individual incentives programme, where growing your investment portfolio fast is rewarded to a higher degree than long-term sustainable decisions. This creates a conflict between the roots of the tree, the foundational values of the organisation, and that which grows at the crown. In such a case of conflict, leadership is struggling in tying the two together and must essentially choose between rewarding employees who meet KPIs or those who channel the organisation’s values.

So, the leaders, the stem of the tree, are channelling a culture that becomes the dominant part of how culture is experienced as a member of the organisation. If it is not aligned with how you initially defined success, then you grab your rake, your saw and your fertilizer and go to work on that which has unintentionally grown large at the crown.

Identity and context are linked and will essentially lead behaviour in one direction or the other.

This leads us to the final aspect of our culture mode: behaviour.

Behaviour: What we do

Much has been written about behaviour, and we have been exploring the field of behavioural science for more than a decade. The fascinating thing about behaviour is that it never ceases to amaze and frustrate us. Our good intentions on other people’s behalf will sometimes fall flat due to the most mind-boggling factors, while at other times, great ideas and subsequent actions happen as if they were magically created out of thin air.

The question on behaviour is crucial because it brings attention to what is perceived as right and wrong in any given situation. The sum of identity and context, along with the two subsequent questions, is what manifests itself in behaviour. If your culture tree channels root energy of inclusion, transparency and customer-centric focus, and the context truly honours these traits, then behaviour will surely follow suit. If there is a discrepancy, behaviour will fluctuate and may even lead to conflicts among individuals.

So, with behaviour, we ask the critical question: how do I behave to succeed?

The importance of leadership behaviour

As a leader in the organisation, you are the stem of the culture. You are the pathway between organisational principles and foundations to timely initiatives, conversations and decisions made in real time. We learnt earlier that your behaviour as a leader is more influential on how a colleague understands and experiences the organisation’s culture than what this individual is taught, for example through onboarding, town hall speeches and posters by the coffee machine. It is you, the leader, who define the culture for your direct reports, both in what you knowingly do and through habits and unwilling signals.

With this notion, we acknowledge the need to have a straightforward answer to the above question; how do I behave to succeed? If you know your culture tree and have a grasp on the common norms, logic and narrative of the organisation, then look to the context and consider if it is supportive or conflicting with the culture you, as a leader, should represent.

As a leader, you can direct your follower’s attention to successful behaviour through clear guidance and coaching. You can design the context to foster successful behaviour, and you can inspire and guide through role-modelling behaviour to stimulate both mimicking and a sense of consistency in what we claim, incentivise and do.

Sometimes, doing and explaining the cultural meaning of what you are doing can strengthen the effect, but be careful not to overdo it. We like guides and role models but not always preachers.

Space for reflection

As we are exploring culture further, we propose a couple of reflections for you to consider and discuss with your peers:

  1. Are your three aspects aligned? Ask yourself the following:

    a. How do we define success?
    Identity: Consider the values that are emphasised, the brand you represent as an organisation, and what you as a leader believe is critical to achieving success.

    b. What guides us towards success?
    Context: Consider the systems, processes, incentives and structures that are in place to shape your understanding of success.

    c. How do we behave to succeed?
    Behaviour: The sum of what defines success and what guides you towards success should align with the essential behaviours that you observe in the organisation. Consider what is done in crucial decision-making situations, what arguments are presented to reach a conclusion, and overall, how relationships play out in the environment around you.
  2. The three questions are proposed as a mirror to the culture you channel as a leader. If you discover discrepancies between the three aspects, start by looking at what you, as a leader, can do to align them.

Follow us as we continue to explore the concept of organisational culture even further.

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