Organizational scholar Edgar Schein has argued that corporate cultures are created in the image of their leader. That is, the culture reflects the values, attitudes and behaviors of the leader. The culture then creates leaders in that image.
The tone is set at the top and then the culture reinforces that tone. This creates a strong mutually reinforcing dynamic that is hard to break. When a culture needs to change, either the leader needs to change or the organization needs to change leaders. But changing a culture doesn’t happen overnight.
Understanding the link between a leader and the culture of the organization provides an excellent tool for assessing organizations. Even if I have never met the leader or observed him or her directly, I can tell a lot about them by observing the organization’s culture. And I can get a pretty good idea of the type of culture that exists in an organization by talking to the leader. Below I outline five distinct culture types. See if you can identify your own organization in any of these descriptions.
1. Inspiring Cultures
Inspiring Cultures are characterized as follows:
- These organizations are purpose-driven and people throughout the organization believe that what they do each day really matters—to themselves, to their teams, to the organization and to their constituents. They come to work each day with a compelling sense of meaning at work. They have a sense of being involved in a cause much bigger than themselves.
- These organizations have high, yet realistic expectations. They challenge their employees and then support them to meet these expectations by providing the training and resources they need to meet those expectations.
- Creativity is rewarded. Failures are “teachable moments” and are viewed as the stepping stones for personal and organizational growth. Failures are essential for innovation, not a fatal flaw.
- Leaders in inspiring cultures are intentional about cultivating and nurturing the culture. There is a powerful synergy between relationships and organizational goals.
- Leaders regularly celebrate success throughout the organization. They even celebrate those who leave and find success elsewhere.
2. Accepting Cultures
Accepting Cultures are characterized as follows:
- While the overall atmosphere is very positive, difficult decisions are often avoided instead of being addressed expeditiously. These unresolved issues and problematic leaders are bumps and potholes that create tension. For instance, leaving a poor leader in place too long erodes the trust and drive of those who serve in that department. In many cases, the difficulties remain isolated in the departments where those poor managers lead. While the rest of the organization is thriving, the environment for the people on these teams is quite negative.
- Most people who work in these organizations think the organization is the one of the best ones they’ve ever experienced. They love the blend of clear goals and strong relationships, and they are highly motivated to do their best. The senior leaders in these organizations invest in developing people and the culture. But, if they were more intentional about addressing the problems in the culture, these organizations would be even more successful.
3. Stagnant Cultures
Stagnant Cultures are characterized as follows:
- The leadership team sees employees as production units, not people. The staff members are valuable when, and only when, they produce. All praise is based on performance, very little, if any, on character.
- Employees tolerate their leaders, but they don’t trust or respect them. They still do their work, but only the most ambitious invest themselves in the success of the organization.
- The only heroes are the top executives, and the employees suspect that the top leaders are making a bundle, or at least receiving lots of accolades, at their expense. The employees resent this.
- Without trust, respect and loyalty, people feel compelled to defend their turf, hang on to power and limit communication. In this atmosphere, relatively small problems quickly escalate.
- The leadership team isn’t happy with the lack of enthusiasm and declining productivity, so they treat employees as if they were wayward teenagers. They try anything to control them: anger, pleading, threats, rewards, ignoring them, micromanaging them. But nothing works.
- Complaining becomes the employees’ favorite pastime. With only a few exceptions, people become clock-watchers and check-cashers, caring little for the leader’s vision. The whole organization lives in the status quo of lethargy.
4. Discouraging Cultures
Discouraging Cultures are characterized as follows:
- It’s all about the top people: their prestige and their power. They act as though everybody else in the organization exists only to make those at the top more successful, and most of the employees deeply resent it.
- People spend as much time trying to survive the power struggles, protecting themselves from more hurt and analyzing the top people’s pathology as they spend doing their work. Employees become fiercely loyal to a supervisor who protects them, but they actively seek to undermine any perceived adversary.
- As the benchmarks of success decline, the top leaders become more authoritarian and threatening. They demand compliance and loyalty and they defy anyone who disagrees with them or even offers another opinion.
- The leadership team seldom looks in the mirror to find the culprit. Instead, the blame is always put on incompetent or unmotivated people throughout the organization, but these are the only ones who are willing to stay employed there. These organizations attract malcontents, sycophants and desperate people who can’t find a job anywhere else.
5. Toxic Cultures
Toxic Cultures are characterized as follows:
- In a toxic culture, the leaders create a “closed system,” where any advice and creative ideas from the outside are suspect from the start. These systems breed bad ideas, bad behaviors and bad values in the organization over and over.
- The rights and dignity of individual employees are surrendered to the powerful elite. People are expected to do as they’re told; nothing less and nothing else. The organization’s leaders believe they “own” every employee. They have exceptionally high expectations of workers, but they offer them little or no autonomy to make decisions.
- Fear becomes the dominating motivational factor of the organization, and those who choose to stay meekly comply. Many, though, are too afraid to leave. They’ve noticed that when people even think about leaving, they’re severely criticized for being disloyal.
- Turf battles are the accepted sport of the organization and open warfare becomes normal. Suspicion and resentment poison the lines of communication so even the simplest directive becomes a weapon area.
- Ethical, financial, or sexual lapses may occur, but employees are expected to turn a blind eye. The leaders constantly look over their shoulders to see if they’ve been caught.
- These organizations run off good people, and they attract only the naïve or truly desperate.
Learn more about the leader-culture connection from leadership experts at the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business.
J. Lee Whittington is a Professor of Management in the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. He focuses his teaching, research, and consulting in the areas of Leadership, Organizational Behavior and Spiritual Leadership.
His research has been published in The Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Managerial Issues, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Strategy, and the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management.
His book, Biblical Perspectives on Leadership and Organizations was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in August 2015. He is also a co-author with Tim Galpin and Greg Bell of the book, Leading the Sustainable Organization. His newest book, Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach was co-authored with DBA students Simone Meskelis and Enoch Asare, Gupta professor Sri Beldona.