Leadership and Culture – Take it from the Top

When we are young and idealistic, and first begin to work inside a company or organization, we tend to think that anything is possible. Of course, company leadership will change direction as new challenges arise and common sense prevails.

Of course! Yeah, sure…

Over time, we awaken to the fact that organizational culture – that way of thinking, feeling, and behaving, that set of expectations and motivations and worldviews that inexorably shapes the group – is a far more powerful force than common sense. Or our superior ideas. And it comes right from the top.

The leaders set and maintain organizational culture. Not the worker bees. You’ll either find it pleasant (or at least tolerable), or you’ll need to move on. If you stay in a culture that is a serious mis-match, you are asking for misery.

Why do existing cultures tend to have such a powerful and enduring influence? Here are several reasons – perhaps you can add others in the comments.

  1. Most leaders don’t like to be challenged – either personally, or in fielding a potential threat to the status quo. Change hurts.
  2. Over time, those who tend to embrace the values and attitudes of the organization rise to the top, and non-conformists are weeded out. Cultural self-selection reigns.
  3. People prefer to take on external “enemies” (competitors, market conditions, customers). It’s always easier to go after what’s out there, instead of doing the immensely difficult work of re-shaping internal culture.
  4. Most organizations were built around hierarchical models that were a response to the market conditions of the time. Large swaths of “the way it’s done here” are now assumed, even though the world has now moved well past the point where those things make any sense.

While it is possible to engineer some levels of change from a lower level of the organization, by and large, if you sense that there isn’t an openness to having the corporate culture questioned and improved, the end result will be beating your head against a wall. And, with the additional bonus of being viewed as a malcontent. Better to read the writing on that wall early on, and find a place to belong that is a “fit;” or, if you can, start your own company.

Those that hold the reins of power set the tone. Period. Be careful that you don’t just accept a job offer. Take a careful look at the leaders and the culture they are setting. And ask yourself with brutal honesty: Will I fit?

Because the culture isn’t going to change for you.

We’re going to be talking about Leadership and Culture this Tuesday (March 8th, 8 pm ET) during #LeadershipChat on Twitter. Be sure to read the thoughts of my co-moderator, Lisa Petrilli, on this topic. And, take a look at our brand spanking new LeadershipChat website, which we’ll continue to expand with new features in the coming weeks.

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Fun for Some, and Some for Fun

In the Harvard Business Review this week, Grant McCracken takes on the concept of “forced fun” in a corporation, using the way Zappo’s treats visitors as an example. Here’s an extract of Mr. McCracken’s post:

Visitors touring the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas are greeted noisily. Staffers blow horns and ring cowbells to bid them welcome.

This sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. Call me a grinch. Call me a humorless, life-hating, stick in the mud, but commandeering personal emotions in the interest of forced conviviality seems to me wrong. I believe emotions are mostly a private matter and should not be controlled by the corporation.

I have never met Grant, and have no idea whether or not he is a grinch, but one thing I can say: his logic is flawed.

I get the point – who wants to be subject to inauthentic displays of emotion, either as the giver or recipient? But as many of the commentators point out, people choose to work where they will and do business where they will, and corporate culture is one of those aspects that draws or repels.

As our grandmothers would tell us, honey works better then lemons.

By using terms like “forced fun” and “commandeering personal emotions”, the author tries to portray the issue as one where employers are infringing on private freedoms, or encouraging insincerity, a place where an employer should not tread. But the freedom issue is really at the point of decision to work within a company that has a certain culture. And some companies choose to have a culture of fun, and excitement, and engagement.

People are complex and holistic beings, and emotions are woven into us, impacted by our surroundings, our co-workers, our behaviors, and yes, even our expectations and the expectations of others. Any business owner should not only own the tangible and financial aspects of the company, but also own the responsibility to develop (and model) a positive culture. Unless lemon juice is preferred. Take your pick. As a customer, I’ll take my pick as well. Guess what kind of climate I’ll seek out?

Mr. McCracken says, near the conclusion, “When we commandeer the emotional lives of our employees we waste a valuable resource.” I respectfully disagree (PLUS – read this article just published by WSJ Online, regarding happiness in the workplace). When we FAIL to commandeer the abilities of our employees, and don’t encourage self-control and productivity in all areas (including imagination, task performance, and emotional engagement), then we leave the company culture to drift. Leadership of people is not simply addressing 70% of who they are. It’s tapping the entire potential of each individual and making a much greater “whole” in the process.

I’m all for personal authenticity. And for corporate authenticity. If someone wants to be sour, moody, or emotionally fickle and/or disengaged, I’m sure there are plenty of places to go and be “authentic.” Please, however – don’t go to Zappo’s, and don’t try to work with me!

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