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How to Establish Your Company's Organizational Culture

When popular figures like Chris Christie fail to own their actions, the business community should take note.
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When someone like Governor Chris Christie stands up and says “I’m responsible because it happened on my watch” the public often gets the sense that the speaker is being disingenuous and the underlying message is, “Yes, I’m responsible, but not directly.”

But leaders are responsible directly for the behavior of others because leaders are accountable for the day-in and day-out operating culture of their organization. Leaders may not be able to monitor everything, but it’s a leader’s job to make sure there’s an organizational culture in place that assures that what happens on their watch is consistent with their intent.

Leadership and culture are two concepts that are inexorably connected. While conceptually different, organizational behaviorists, such as Edgar Schein, believe they are intertwined. In Schein’s book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, he states that leaders both embed and transmit the culture. That is, leaders articulate the culture, make it real, and transfer it throughout the organization.

As a leader, whether you’re a CEO, an entrepreneur, or a department head, you should not regard culture as an external artifact, but part and parcel of who you are in the organization. Culture is a core element of your overall vision and strategic plan.

One thing is for sure: academic researchers do not agree about what culture is. There are numerous definitions and all sorts of theories, but all the academic work it seems to boil down to the idea that culture is about the norms that shape acceptable and unacceptable behavior in an organization.

As a leader, you have to keep in mind that culture is a tool that will help you take the organization to where you want it to go. Your vision of the organization is created by the decisions you make regarding the creation and transmission of core norms that comprise your organization’s culture.

This leaves you with four challenges:

1. Articulate a core cultural statement.

A core cultural statement is not distinct from an operational mission statement, rather it is embedded in the operational mission statement. When you say that you want to be the “single best real estate agency in New York, "expand on this operational mission statement and elaborate on what type of relationships and behaviors you expect to help your team achieve this goal.

2. Develop a cultural vocabulary.

Once you’ve articulated the core cultural statement within your mission, consider how to describe it. Ask yourself what reinforcing words, adjectives, and nouns can best reflect your core cultural statement.

You can’t always repeat the core cultural statement, but you can use appropriate vocabulary to reinforce it. Make a list of words that transmit the essence of your culture and use them.

3. Model your behavior.

Leaders are always reminded how important it is to practice what you preach. With culture, modeling behavior is particularly important. Specifically, if you want others to own the culture, you have to act in such a manner that shows others that you live the culture.

The culture must be reflected in your behavior in a natural, consistent, and unobtrusive way so the modeling is authentic. It may be a mundane truism, but the role of leadership is to model.

4. Avoid cultural drift.

While it’s easy to achieve agreement on the core cultural statement, there is a tendency over time to ignore them. A drift sets in and the core culture is supported by token gestures. There is a tendency to overlook the importance of an organization’s core culture. As one person recently told me, “Sure, culture is important, but I have other things to worry about.” Day-in and day-out, leadership should reinforce, recognize, and reward behavior that's consistent with your core cultural statement.

Of course this doesn’t mean running around patting people on the back, but it does mean rewarding behaviors or, at least, recognizing behaviors, that fit with the culture. Leaders must remember that it is equally, if not more important, to sanction behaviors or at least point out behaviors that are inconsistent with the larger organizational culture.

Culture is a social-psychological organizational state, and it depends on your leadership. That means you have to focus on specific mechanisms, strategies, and tactics that will embed culture so deeply in your organization that it becomes part of everyday life.

When your cultural leadership is successful, acceptable behavior will be taken for granted way of life for your organization and it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in a Governor Christie situation trying to explain why everything went so terribly wrong.

IMAGE: AP
Last updated: Jan 21, 2014

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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