Organizational Culture

How Can Leadership Really Influence Organizational Culture?

organizational culture

A business isn’t just a collection of loosely affiliated individuals earning a living — every organization also has a unique company culture that defines its purpose.  

The company culture determines if employees are willing to work overtime and go the extra mile. It’s the difference between an employee suggesting improvements or remaining silent. It shapes the company’s response to the unexpected, and, ultimately, sets the course for a business to thrive or falter.  

But what — if anything — can managers do to influence organizational culture? 

Why Does Organizational Culture Still Matter?

In today’s market of ever-shifting goalposts and heightened staff mobility, you might ask yourself if business leaders should focus on organizational culture. Or is that time better spent on more “practical” matters, like digital disruption or capital investment?  

Why should a leader care about their impact on organizational culture, if there seem to be more pressing matters that affect the bottom line?  

To take a stab at answering that, let’s take a quick historical jaunt to Ancient Greece.  

The Historical Context

organizational cultureAristotle — the father of Western philosophy, and, arguably, the modern economy — said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

Viewed through Aristotle’s lens, culture is practical; it’s a body of assumptions and attitudes that form a pattern of habits, which collectively produce an outcome.  

Flash forward to the 1970s. Worldwide behemoth corporations lurch onto the global stage, and academics try to figure out how those big organizations make decisions. They study how an organization’s pattern of behaviors develop — and subsequently developed the notion of culture as a collaborative process for making sense of the world. Scholars call the phenomenon “sensemaking.” 

Sure, modern organizational theory concedes, Aristotle was right to describe culture as a set of formative habits. But these behavioral patterns start with how people within an organization collectively interpret the world.  

In other words, culture starts with perception.  

Organizational Culture Today

To cobble together two-and-a-half millennia of thinking on how groups become what they are, organizational culture: 

  • Refers to patterns of ongoing behavior over time.  
  • Is informed collectively by every member of the organization (from intern to CEO). 
  • Is a product of how people within it interpret the world. 
  • Is intensely practical. Culture directly affects what an organization does. 

In other words, organizational culture is deeply relevant to how managers manage. Actively fostering a productive and dynamic organizational culture might even be a core concept of business strategy. 

How Can Managers Create Cultural Change?

Culture is a practical and tangible asset, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t control it single-handedly. It’s not a policy you can rewrite, and it’s impossible to predict how it will evolve with time.  

Moreover, by definition, it doesn’t belong to any individual. Elon Musk, for example, wields incredible influence over the cultural fabric of Tesla –– but the company’s identity is determined by everyone within the organization, albeit to varying degrees. 

How can a manager hope to understand and improve this complex exchange of motivations and viewpoints?  

1. Lead by Example

One of the more powerful tools at your disposal is the simple act of managing by example. Every organization will have its unique set of ethical guidelines governing everything from communication practices to budget policies.  

However, these cultural practices are only as effective as their implementation. As a manager, you can reinforce a robust organizational culture by abiding by the same rules of behavior you expect from your employees.  

Your example will reinforce the idea that the company lives by its creed. 

2. Practice Inclusivity

Your organization’s culture is the product of every person working within at your company. A crucial part of influencing culture, therefore, has to be the act of listening.  

Endeavor to have conversations with all your staff about company values and how they feel about them.  

  • If you encounter cynicism, where does it come from?  
  • If you see your people struggle with some facet of your company’s identity, where do those problems originate?  
  • Do these perceptions signal that the company needs to change its practice? 

While you may not get clear answers right away, your team will appreciate you for seeking answers. Try to nurture the conditions for an ongoing conversation about what your organization represents now and what it could represent in the future.  

3. Hire the Right People

organizational culture

If organizational culture is a product of every staff member’s personality and worldview, hire people who you know will help create an environment that’s resilient and positive.  

When you interview someone for a job, talk to candidates about their beliefs — for example, what makes them want to pursue a career with your business specifically? What life goals drive them to succeed?  

Delve beyond your company’s mission statement and find the emotional connection. Try to invite a transparent conversation without leading the candidate to respond in a desired way or encouraging them to rattle off points from the job description.  

Also, know that your organizational culture may be one of your company’s best assetsAn increasing number of job applicants consider it one of their primary criteria for a new career. 

4. Harness a Powerful Message

Conflicting messages erode the credibility of any corporate culture, so pay attention to the words you use to describe the company, its purpose, and its employees. Consistency of language is, of course, vital across official documents. But informal internal communications like emails and face-to-face conversations are just as critical. 

Whenever you communicate with staff at any level, be courteous and vocal when they succeed. This positivity will catch on.

Key Takeaways

As a manager, two things are amply clear.  First, organizational culture is a critical facet of your job. Culture may sound like an amorphous concept, but it impacts your company’s viability.  Second, while you may not be able to control organizational culture directly, as a business leader, you have a defining role. Don’t underestimate the impact of your decisions or your image. 


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About the Author

Mark Lambert started his career as a project manager, but soon developed a tragic and lifelong allergy to spreadsheets. Fleeing the horrors of conditional formatting, he instead embraced a career in management and professional training. Mark now writes about professional communication and getting the most out of corporate life.