Culture: A Problem for Senior Leadership

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

Dec 06, 2017

organisational culture

There's a pattern I've noticed of late. The number of leaders willing to assess their organisational culture is growing ... hooray! The bad news is that while leaders are warming to the idea, and reviewing culture diagnostic reports, they tend to intellectualise the findings and/or neglect to follow through in any meaningful way. At best, I see leaders handball this 'hot potato' to middle management and people without the authority or capability required to bring about the desired change in culture.

Makes me wonder - is the commitment real or has culture become something that leaders feel that they 'ought' to be seen to be getting on board with? Perhaps leaders do not fully appreciate their role in creating culture or the pervasive influence that culture has on organisational performance? Both are plausible, yet I'm going to offer more helpful hypotheses to cast light on why leaders struggle, and sometimes avoid, working effectively with culture.

Organisational culture guru Edgar Schein (1992) tells us that leaders initially impose their own values and assumptions on the workforce. If the group is successful, assumptions are then shared and come to be taken for granted. We then have a culture that defines, for future generations, the kinds of norms and behaviours that are acceptable.

As time goes by, organisations' experience adaptive difficulties to the point where some of their assumptions are no longer valid. As a result, cultures need to evolve along with the changing environment. Culture is far more complex than "the way we do things around here" and the work of leadership is to step outside the culture, recognize the functional and dysfunctional elements and start targeted change processes that are more connected to the new context and ultimately bring about success.

Working with context, developing strategy and defining and role modelling the desired culture is a key function of senior leadership teams. Yet, despite the plethora of case studies and research demonstrating the importance and value of working with culture, a reluctance for leaders to do so remains evident.


  • Diagnosis can be difficult: Surveying employee perceptions are one thing but identifying and analysing in-use values and shared assumptions are quite another.
  • Transformation is painful: Leaders must be willing to examine blind spots, identify unconscious biases, deal with their own anxiety about shifting behaviour and inherently believe that the culture is not as good as it could or deserves to be.
  • Time and money: Culture change requires leadership sponsorship and effort from all people managers. In some instances, leaders are on short term contractual arrangements which potentially influences motivations to see things through.
  • A perceived threat: Just like everyone else, leaders experience unconscious resistance to change. The desired culture can potentially trigger a perceived threat to current levels of control, status and power.
  • The tangible versus intangible: Traditional autocratic styles of leadership tend to prefer working with factual data, numbers and known outcomes. Working with culture is quite an adaptive challenge, it can be messy and leave leaders feeling vulnerable when they don't have all the answers.
  • Culture is a sub-system: Individual organisations bear the cultural characteristics of greater industries, institutions and nations.

Whilst I'm a big fan of Schein, number 6 should not be underestimated. Give yourself a break, culture is also a reflection of larger systems and not entirely the result of your leadership. Think of culture as a Russian Doll; an organisation that sits within other systems and contexts that will influence that culture. For example, a highly regulated or unionised organisation will be impacted by larger forces than the leadership. There are political systems and institutions such as the church, local government, defence and education with strong and enduring histories. Not to mention the influence that geographical location will have. Think about global organisations and the differences that appear in the sub-cultures between Australia, Asia, America and India? Even within Australia or New Zealand, I've been able to identify distinct organisational sub-cultures where their offices and sites in regional (rural/urban) areas.

Managing culture is going to be tricky but don't give up - understand your culture and learn how to talk about and work with it. That alone is a step toward recognising what your organisation needs to do differently.

Culture transformation toward an open learning environment is becoming more and more critical if one is to survive in this rapidly changing world (see An Open and Closed Case for Culture). Fortunately, I've had the pleasure of working alongside a few dedicated CEO's when leading highly successful culture transformation projects...

Here are the must do's

  • Start with a rigorous assessment. Establishing a baseline of your current culture is a vital step in identifying gaps and specific targets for change. Valid and reliable culture research requires more than a simple survey. To unpack values, beliefs and how people develop those shared assumptions requires qualitative analysis of the symbols and stories being told.
  • There must, must, must be absolute alignment and uncompromising leadership commitment to the desired state. This usually means being prepared to take a long hard look in the mirror and transforming how you contribute to the current reality.
  • Top/down and bottom/up engagement - run little experiments, talk to your people about the diagnostic results and ask them... what needs to shift and how can we do it? You'd be surprised by what you will learn when you genuinely connect with your people.
  • Implement new or re-invigorate your company values by engaging staff in conversations about the visible behaviours that would be present if those values are in-use. Be specific! The devil is in the detail and you can integrate these behaviours in your work style appraisal processes.
  • Develop an integrated strategy and plan for baby steps. Changing too much is overwhelming and ineffective. Do 1 or 2 things differently, do it well and then move on to the next target.
  • Align your structure, systems and processes with the desired state. What's the point of saying you value collaboration if your staff can't gain access from one floor to the next?
  • Communicate, communicate and then communicate more about why the organisation needs to change and what you are doing about it.
  • Maintain momentum by monitoring progress with regular pulse checks.
  • Talk to Insight to Influence - we've done this before.

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