A huge unanswered question is how do leaders create culture. Culture is an amorphous thing that seems to ‘spring – fully formed, from the head of Zeus’ so magically does it happen. Actually nothing is further from the truth. Culture is formed as people listen to what leadership says, track the leadership’s actions and then try and make sense of the discrepancies and similarities. Few leaders walk their talk and when this happens actions speak louder than words.
Humans are a meaning making species so they abhor ambiguity and instead make up stories to fit the fact when the real information is lacking or ambiguous. Gossip doesn’t have to be right, only make sense. When leaders fail to act on what they say then they open up the conversation to speculation at their peril. It is the stories employees tell, over and over, to make sense of what they are experiencing that creates culture.
We are used to think of leaders leading people through heroic action, but it is much more prosaic than that. Leaders lead by consciously being congruent in their actions and words. To do that effectively an effective leader needs to know several things; clarity of vision (the impact the organization will have on the world), how to get that out through story telling, and how to address group think and nice talk to address reality.
Vision as Story Telling
The vision has to come alive. Stories are inspirational. Baba Prasad, in his article, How to use storytelling to build organizational culture makes this point very well! Stories provides enough of a depth of understanding about what the ideal reality looks that employees can personally relate to the vision and at the same time, see their roll in achieving it. People are inspired when they can see how they can impact the world for the better! Stories also provide an easy vehicle for sharing the vision in their retelling.
So having a clear vision is fine, but if no one understands it or sees how they can help bring it about, then it becomes empty. The story of the vision has to be told and retold over and over again. Each telling brings it life and provides an opportunity for employees to understand it in a deeper and more profound way. One telling is not enough! Several tellings are not enough. The story needs to become so familiar that it is used as a measure of how well things are going.
Culture as Reality
Every leader knows how hard it is to get at the truth. People tell you what you want to hear. Employees know that people will say one thing in private and quite another in public meetings. Why? These kinds of behaviors are the symptoms of a culture of fear. Truth is not rewarded, but punished or used for ulterior purposes. Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie in their article How to defeat groupthink: Five solutions suggest changing the norm from “go along to get along” to one of curiosity and challenge is one good way.
By asking provocative questions, garnering opinions and asking for information that you might not like to know before showing your hand is a habit that will serve to free people up to say what’s really on their mind. Everyone wants to be liked, so it is normal for people to try and provide what they think folks already want to hear. This is especially true is difficult news is met with ridicule or anger. I’ve never consulted with a company that told me they didn’t want people to be honest, but most of the companies I’ve worked with have fired people for being the bearer of bad news. Learning how to promote honesty is a leadership skill and good business practice!
Learn Your Culture - Change Your Life
Kathryn Alexander, MA: futurist, speaker, author coach, her systems thinking approach to values and ethics enables deep change by impactful leaders.