Teaching Organizational Culture

Teaching Organizational Culture

In my time cultivating oodles of leaders and leadership teams, it was repeatedly reinforced that paying attention to creating team culture is worth the effort.

I’ve seen so many teams latch onto the quirks, foibles or neuroses of their leadership team, for better or for worse - generally for worse.

For example, compare two leaders I know, J and A. Both were in charge of leading groups of teens and young adults on multi-week wilderness expeditions.

J really liked to eat. He was all about having large quantities of good-tasting food. Meals were not always elaborate, but they were created with intention. Snacks were scheduled for every day. He had a secret stash of candy bars and blocks of cheese to nibble on when he was hungry between snack and meal times. I’m sure some of this was motivated by his high metabolism and generally athletic nature (he went on to compete in triathlons and complete epic, physically demanding expeditions). His groups took a lot of food with them and did not bring back food waste - which was good. And also, you’d know his groups because their first question, when they returned from their trip, was: “What’s for dinner?” J also told stories about food theft among his teammates, food sabotage (or just “tragically” poor cooking skills), food hoarding and food stress conversations of all sorts (what are we eating next, when are we eating, what about after that?). Everyone has their way of processing the challenge and adventure of a multi-week trip, and I also think a journal entry that is a list of food to eat when you get home might be missing some perspective.

Compare to A. Her trips were happening at the same time, with the same resources. A valued the unique and quirky nature of her teammates. When she returned, I marveled at how she managed to have another group of such delightful weirdos. There were silly inside jokes, sometimes songs or team dances - lots of laughing. They also did have their challenges, struggles and hard days. There were break-downs and build-ups, thunderstorms and sunny days (metaphorically and meteorologically). I suspect the food on their trip was just fine - no one had much to say about it.

Did J cultivate food-stressed participants and A cultivate free spirits? Yes. Was this an intentional part of their leadership plan? No.

The stories of J and A are really about the culture they created on their teams. You might be thinking, well, I’m not out in the woods with a gaggle of young people with nothing to go on but my own personal quirks as a guide. And yet….

Research by Richard Boyatzis shows that it is the mood of the leader that creates the culture of the team. What are your quirks, preferences or neuroses that are shaping your team's culture or influencing teammates' work-relationship expectations?

Those unintentional, unexplored facets of your personality are having an impact on your teammates. The intentional, known aspects are too. Your default responses to stress, celebration, challenge and joy define the culture you create as a leader.

Sometimes it’s easier to see this as a teammate by examining what is known as a “leadership style” or what becomes entrenched as organizational culture. The leader’s default responses to conflict or mistakes become the root of psychological safety (or lack of it) in the corporate culture. The degree of psychological safety in an organization is directly translated as the amount of toxicity workers perceive in organizational culture.

What is to be done about this? You may like food, and you may want creative free spirits to populate your team. You may avoid conflicts and deliver a harsh defensive-aggressive response when someone points out a mistake.

The short story is that you can change your defaults. You can respond differently to conflict or mistakes or food access, or quirky personality traits. It may take coaching or mindset work or one of several pathways to personal growth to be a leader who defaults to building psychologically safe teams during the chaos of work-life.

Start first with some real-talk examination of the culture around you on your team. What do you like about it? What parts seem counterproductive or downright ick? How does that culture mirror (or represent an amplification of) aspects of your personality or default response to the challenges you’re facing together?

Start with what is, then look at creating the path and process that is the culture you dream of. It starts with how you act every day - which is ultimately freeing because if you don’t like what you’re seeing, you have an opportunity to be on a better path with every interaction.