Leadership and (organizational) culture: Who’s influencing whom?

When you are new to an organization, you may feel two opposing forces: to adapt to the culture and blend in, or to influence the culture in some way to change. Simply making a decision between the two, however, doesn’t seem to be enough. Organizational cultures do not change easily or happily. If you decide to adapt to the culture instead of trying to change it, you may feel like a manager but not a leader.

What is organizational culture? Who can influence an organization’s culture? How or why does that influence happen?

There’s a story about five monkeys in a cage for a scientific experiment about culture. The scientists placed a ladder in the center with bananas at the top. Each time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After awhile, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others would beat on the wayward simian that attempted to go up the ladder. After some time, no monkey dared climb the ladder, no matter how hungry they might be.

The story goes on to say that the scientists slowly replaced the monkeys one at a time with new monkeys that had not experienced the dynamics in the cage. After several beatings from the old monkeys, each new member learned not to climb the ladder. Eventually none of the monkeys in the cage had ever experienced the cold shower, and still none ever climbed the ladder.

While the story itself may be apocryphal, it’s likely an an extrapolation from the conclusions of several scientific experiments put together: organizational culture impacts the thinking and behavior of someone who is new to the organization.

You have seen this for yourself: When you started working for your current (or most recent) company, it probably took you a very short time before you started learning “How we do things around here.” Perhaps you expressed surprise at a common practice and heard someone say, sarcasm dripping from their voice, “Welcome to the company!”

Perhaps you tried something that made sense to you, but because it didn’t fit the new culture, you got called out on it–with or without an explanation. Someone probably pulled you aside and told you one way or another that your attempt wasn’t going to fly. If they were nice about it, perhaps you got this information behind closed doors with an encouragement to try again. If they weren’t being nice about it, you may actually have been punished–an experience not unlike an unexpected cold shower.

It’s impossible to write down every piece of a culture, and so cultures are shared through trial, error, and reinforcement.

Every organization has a culture that has developed over time. The reasons for why “we do things this way” may be lost, just as the new monkeys may never have quite understood why “you don’t climb the ladder for a banana.” Even unspoken, culture is powerful.

As a new leader in an organization, you have the opportunity to challenge the culture, to question why things are done as they are, and to suggest new practices, but cultures do not like to change. In systems theory this is called “Homeostasis.” The system’s ability to adapt in order to avoid change is a survival mechanism. In an organization, its continued existence is due to the practices it has had. When you start questioning those practices, the system pushes back as if you are threatening its survival. It’s like an immune system that attacks and eliminates an invading germ.

We see homeostasis in the monkey story when a new monkey climbs the ladder and is punished. The new monkey’s attempt to climb the ladder is the new behavior, and the system compensates by administering beatings. It is a necessary adaptation in order for the system to maintain the status quo: Nobody goes up the ladder, and nobody gets a cold shower. The new monkey’s hunger for the banana is the “invading germ.” The beatings from the other monkeys is the immune system.

Here’s an example in an organization where we see homeostasis in action: A new leader decides to take each member of the staff out to lunch. That hasn’t been part of the culture, so the staff forms conspiracy theories and binds together even more tightly to resist the ideas and changes brought by the new leader. Eventually the new leader gives up because his attempts to be nice only seemed to make things worse. The status quo is restored: the manager no longer tries to take staff members out to lunch. The new manager’s lunch idea = the “germ,” and the conspiracy theories and office gossip are the immune system in action.

This doesn’t mean a new leader’s ideas must always be eliminated. Leadership in this situation means sticking to your guns, recognizing that the immune system will kick in, and maintaining a commitment to purpose grounded in values. Over time and with clarity of communication the automatic reaction may be overcome, but if you are easily dissuaded, then your idea will crash. (See John Kotter’s and Edwin Friedman’s work for more on creating a change in the system and the role of communication.)

Influence over the culture is not always entirely mysterious and organic. At a larger scope and in the larger organization, there may be individuals who have a strong influence on the culture. Typically these are the most powerful individuals in the organization — the ones to whom others look for cues about what’s acceptable and what isn’t–what is “our way.”

In his book Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success, Art Kleiner suggests that these influential persons are not necessarily the ones with hierarchical status. Their place on the organizational chart may not be obvious positions of power, but everyone in the company knows who they are because everyone knows their name and knows they own the power.

In the end, it’s the most powerful person in the organization who has the most influence on the culture of that organization, but that power may not be what or where you think it is. The power can come from extremely powerful emotions, or power that comes from the tools at that person’s disposal. You can identify who that is by paying attention, listening closely, and asking questions (sometimes indirectly).

In the next blog (link below) we look at the risks associated with attempting to influence the culture (or not) and how to get started on a path you’ll find satisfying. These are important considerations, so if this is a topic that interests you, stick with me and enjoy the ride!

For further reading:

  • A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman
  • Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation During Times of Change by Jeremy Gutsche
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success by Art Kleiner
  • Winning Teams, Winning Cultures by Larry Senn and Jim Hart

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Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

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