Paths to influence organizational culture

You’ve been promoted or hired into a leadership position in a company that needs a radical change and dramatically better results. It’s do or die. People are looking to you to help turn the Titanic away from the iceberg. As you review the various systems in the organization, it becomes clear that the organization’s culture is holding it back. Defensiveness seems to be everyone’s first reaction, silos hamper communications and cause gross inconsistencies, and morale is dragging in the basement. How can you possibly help the company turn around when it has such a poor culture?

Can you change a culture?

Statistically speaking, the unfortunate truth is that most likely you can’t. Most change initiatives fail, and the reasons for these failures are well documented.

That doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means you are in it for the long haul. If you aren’t a member of The Core Group–those people who have tremendous influence on the culture–your influence on the culture is low at best. So what can you do?

I propose that you can follow two possible paths to influence the culture:

  • The first is to stick it out, becoming more influential slowly over time as you develop relationships through the culture, share your thinking, and act according to your internalized value system. This is a path where your influence grows slowly over time.
  • The second path to increasing your influence, perhaps a kind of shortcut, is to connect strategically with those influential “core group” members. By asking around about who seems to have the most influence in the organization you can identify them, and then you can try approaching them in order to establish a connection with them and develop that relationship.

This second path may seem intimidating to some, and it probably isn’t for everyone, but it isn’t as machiavellian as it might sound. Lobbying is nothing other than strategically attempting to influence the core group. Depending on your role in the organization you may find this to be more or less straightforward and related to your role. Keeping your purpose in mind over time and making your decisions in alignment with that purpose will get you closer.

Your approach down this path, and your motivations for traveling it matter significantly. Influential “core group” members are accustomed to being approached by power-hungry climbers, and the aims of those climbers are easy to see through. Successful influence requires that you identify a purpose for yourself that is at least somewhat pure of heart, intended to benefit the organization and the people within it and not just your own ambitions. (See the last section of this piece for ideas about how to discover your purpose.)

If leadership is new to you, this may sound like far more work than you want to put into the job. An emerging leader has so much to do, and you may feel that if you don’t keep your head down and keep achieving the smaller goals set up for you, you’ll never get through.

Focusing on achieving all of those smaller goals and milestones is the second path whereby you gradually accrue influence. You do the work that is expected, you earn promotions, and your leadership skills slowly but surely cause people around the organization to learn to trust you and listen to what you have to say.

Unfortunately, there are significant risks involved with this apparently “safe” approach as well. Take the example of college or university faculty. The promise of tenure may be an alluring “carrot” to draw a scholar down the professional- development path, especially considering the freedoms of thought, philosophy, and activity that are said to come with such a prize. However, the pursuit of tenure is a long, arduous process in which every thought, philosophy, and activity can be carefully scrutinized or even controlled. By the time an individual earns his or her right to influence others, he or she may be so enculturated that true change is the furthest thing from their minds.

Any of us can find ourselves in this situation, operating from the habits we have developed, assuming that our decisions are as good as they’re going to get, or assuming that we have no choice in the matter. Without mindful awareness of our own thinking, behavior, and results, we risk becoming the new monkey beating up other new monkeys and making sure nobody goes after a banana.

how to get started on a satisfying path of influence

Few leaders begin their leadership careers setting out to become enculturated and perpetuate an unhealthy system. How can you avoid becoming that kind of leader?

To do so requires that you become very clear very early about what you believe about leadership, about people, about capitalism, and about management. Deep reflection on who you really are and who you want to be will help you to formulate your own sense of personal values, a vision for your leadership, and your sense of purpose through your life and career.

There are many fantastic books available to support you in working through that kind of reflection. I suggest you survey the field and select something that will work best for you. Here are a few to consider as you begin:

Whether your attempts at influencing the culture come chiefly through building relationships and reputation slowly over time or by connecting with the most culturally influential members of the organization, a strong sense of purpose (grounded in values) will serve you. As Kary Oberbrunner says, identifying those values is like developing the physical muscles in your lower back and abdomen (your “core”). Without them, you risk catastrophic, physical failure when engaged in heavy lifting. This can cause damage to yourself and even others around you. By identifying your sense of vocational calling or purpose, along with an inspiring vision of what kind of leader you want to be, you can help to ensure that the decisions you make along the way will be consistent with the influence you wantto have.

Before I close this, I’d like to discuss an additional risk that comes with a strong commitment to beliefs and values, and that risk has to do with our capacity as humans to firmly hold to ideas that are quite incorrect. It is such a human foible that it can’t be associated with any one belief system or political affiliation. We can be so devoted to our beliefs that empirical proof to the contrary can actually convince us even more strongly. “I know what I know,” we say, “and that so-called proof is just biased/spun/fabricated.”

We see this play out in politics, religion, science, and families. It’s everywhere. You know someone who can’t seem to see that facts are facts. However, you probably can’t see that it’s likely to be you, too. It’s all of us.

I’m not trying to tell you to second-guess yourself, but we do need to balance our commitment to our core values and beliefs with openness to information.

With great power comes great responsibility.” Some leaders who have a strong sense of purpose have also been quite wrong. It’s okay to make mistakes, but the more your decisions impact others, the more important it is that you be able to remain open to the influence of others who are trustworthy. This is a delicate balance to strike, and your influence will grow only if you seek to discern your path with a sense of respect and mindfulness.

If you know your purpose, choose your path, and make your decisions with consistency and mindfulness, you can exert an influence on the culture that is impactful and sustainable. You won’t be perfect, of course, but if you value and honor the trust that others are putting in you, you will do well, and your organization will benefit from your leadership.
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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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