Posted: 18th August 2014

Culture is typically enabled by the psychological leader of an organisation.

This person is not necessarily the company’s present Chief Executive Officer (CEO); it could be the Founder, a Non-Executive Director, or even someone who is no longer alive (think John Lewis). The cultural characteristics of your firm are key drivers of potentially poor behaviour and increased conduct risk. As a part of Huntswood’s focus on financial services, other regulated industries and customer relations focused businesses, we explore the involvement of an organisation’s leadership in implementing cultural change.

The psychological leader holds the ultimate power within an organisation’s cultural system. The issue arrives, however, when those ultimate leaders are unaware of the potential negative impacts of the culture they have cultivated.

The people within an organisation who could create a bridge between the ultimate leaders and the organisation are the middle / senior leadership teams. They have access to the ultimate leader and are in regular communication with their teams. The middle and senior leaders, however, are usually also experiencing the negative impacts of the culture. They can get stuck spending a surprising amount of their time ‘agitating’; berating their leader(s) and their culture, but not doing anything about it.

When doing this the middle / senior leaders are talking from a ‘followership’ viewpoint. What about the people that look to them for leadership? What about their ‘followership’? By staying in the followership headspace, we absolve ourselves of responsibility, ignoring any accountability we might need to take for our organisation’s culture.

The questions leaders at all levels need to ask themselves are:

  • What are they doing to enable the current culture?
  • What do they need to take accountability for?
  • What’s being communicated throughout the company and what’s not?
  • What behaviours are being rewarded – are these the right ones?
  • How much time is spent agitating rather than being productive?
  • What organisational games are being played and do I join in?
  • Are there clear and inspiring values and how are they being implemented?

Culture can feel like something set in stone, immovable and unable to change – especially if you have witnessed others who have tried to change your organisation’s culture unceremoniously shot down in flames. If this is typical of your organisation, you might first need to consider whether it is possible to create a different way to enable hearing. For example, if your feedback is normally negative or judgemental this could be switched to wanting to be supportive of improvements which result in the organisation being more effective. Changing a culture is undoubtedly a confusing task and it will take patience, but it is possible and it is worth it.

Once the system’s capacity for hearing feedback has been developed (if needed), discussing the negative aspects of a culture with a company’s ultimate leader(s) can still feel like telling a mother that her baby is ugly – it will be taken personally and might result in you being stricken off the Christmas card list. Fear of the leaders’ reaction is one main reason people will stay silent. We do what we can to survive in systems and in many cases, we survive by keeping quiet. Huntswood’s organisational development team asks our clients: at what cost?

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