What is Culture and How Do You Improve It?

What is Culture?

Culture is often described as “the way we do things around here”. It’s largely unconscious and unscripted, something that happens on autopilot based on copying the behaviours of the people in the organization around us and particularly the most senior leaders. “Monkey see, monkey do”. This is how we are hardwired as human beings to stay safe and out of trouble so that our job is secure and we develop a sense of belonging to the tribe we have joined.

Culture is thus an outcome of how we behave and express ourselves in an organization. It is a legacy of past leadership and a reflection of current leadership. There are certain standards we need to comply with to fit in, and also many things we can get away with because there’s an absence of appropriate standards or boundaries. Rather than have a culture by default, we can however create a new culture by design.

The Style of a Culture

First let’s look at the style of a corporate culture. All cultures typically have a certain style or preferred modes to realize their goals in the market or serve their customers and communities. The easiest way to view the Style of an organisation’s culture is to distinguish between:

  • Doing ~ Action Orientation AQ
  • Relating ~ Emotional Awareness  EQ
  • Thinking ~ Mindful Agility MQ
  • Creating ~ Innovation Capacity SQ

As people we are generally strong in two of these dimensions – they reflect our strengths and what we most enjoy doing. Imagine each dimension is like a suit in a deck of cards and we receive a unique hand of cards at birth. Our natural tendency is to spend time in the suits where we hold the most or highest cards. If we have lots of hearts, we spend time on relationships. If we have more spades, we prefer to get on with tasks and activities. I’m a Creative/Doer – I enjoy inventing new things and have a preference for taking pragmatic action.

The same is true for the culture of an organization. The nature of the industry has a lot to do with it. For instance a company like Apple is clearly high on Creative while Fed Express focuses on timely delivery – Doing.

As we develop we can interchange our hand of cards with higher cards in the same suit, but not with cards in different suits. Our personal preferences tend not to change through life although we may well make a significant effort in raising our capacity in a third dimension if it is essential to us to continue to progress in life.

The Stage of a Culture

Our corporate culture can evolve in the same way. It also reflects distinctive stages in evolution that reflect the progressive stages in adult development.

In an “Opportunist” culture everyone is focused on self-interest. Individuals must compete for the spoils. Richard Barrett describes this type of culture as one based on “Survival” reflecting our first need for security in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We value Opportunity and Effort but also overlook the reactive behaviours associated with win-lose such as rejection, deceit and betrayal.

A ‘Conformist’ culture is very rule-ridden, bureaucratic and process oriented. Everything must be done in a certain way and signed off by someone in greater authority. Richard Barrett describes this type of culture as one based on “Relationship” reflecting our second need to belong to a tribe. While we value family, friends and colleagues, we also see the world in “us and them” terms casting blame on others.

A ‘Specialist” culture is very task-focused where everyone focuses on their main field of expertise. This is typically found in an academic and professional setting where everyone works largely independently. Barrett describes this step as the emergence of Self-Esteem. We associate with the tribe but also want to claim our own independence. We value Excellence and Continuous Improvement although our world is still largely competitive.

An ‘Achievement’ culture is strong on goals and targets, and the more mature the culture at this stage, the greater the focus on broader outcomes in terms of customer satisfaction and people engagement, rather than productivity, financial and efficiency targets relating to the work itself. Teamwork comes into play at this stage and generally includes the “work hard, play hard” culture. Barrett describes this as the stage of Transformation because this is the turning point from focusing on our safety needs to our growth needs.

A “Catalyst” culture is much less job oriented and more organic in terms of ensuring that the customer experience is wonderful and their corporate reputation is well regarded and trustworthy. Roles are more flexible and adaptive to what’s required to enrich their services and generate greater value for the people they serve. Wide stakeholder engagement comes into play to develop shared solutions and there’s a sense of what Barrett describes as Internal Cohesion. Everyone’s on the same side and there’s an endeavour to meet the needs of multiple diverse interests.

A “Strategist” culture is oriented towards transforming the world around them by “Making a Difference” in the world. These organizations focus on developing and delivering innovative approaches by giving attention to environmental sustainability, conscious capitalism, care of future generations and ensuring that the whole community is served by their organization so everyone is better off and the less privileged receive special consideration. Everything works much like an orchestral performance.

And finally the “Alchemist” culture is one where we are simply there to serve humanity and generate social evolution.

Three Things Change as the Culture Evolves

The perspective of the leaders at each stage of the culture broadens to accommodate more people in the system or networks we live in and ensure better outcomes for all concerned.

The standards of behaviour are set progressively higher by the leaders at each stage of the culture in order to facilitate stronger relationships, greater authenticity and care for individuals. There is more freedom for the individual and teams to fail and learn in order to lead to more innovation and longer-term sustainable success.

And the values the leaders hold are increasingly more concerned with doing good and the greater good of all rather than winning the prize accolades. We become more and more people-centric as we evolve realizing that we are a community of people on the planet and we need to care for each other in symbiosis with all of life in order to thrive as a society.

What comes first? Culture, Strategy or Leadership?

Up to and including the Achievement culture, strategic goals and objectives serve to stretch us. So strategic direction or our Vision of the future takes the lead, and we strive as people to achieve the goals we set and outcomes we desire. We value Accountability and Accomplishment.

Beyond the Achievement culture, our growth needs as people become paramount. While there is a Vision of the future, our Values, how we do things around here, drives our development as we wish to become the best version of who we are. We want to be more authentic, more purposeful, do more meaningful work, do no harm to others and realize our full potential to make more of a difference in the world.

This is where we become more vulnerable as begin to express our Voice more openly and kindly towards others. When we start to question conventional ways of doing things and seek greater transparency and trust that we will make a valuable contribution. The culture beyond Achiever becomes increasingly innovative and collaborative with a view to at least understanding the drivers and levers of the “wicked problems” we must face in the world.

Bringing our Vision, Values and Voice to the world is the 7-step framework I use in Individual Executive Coaching Programs to enable you to set up a Strategic Operating System to uplift your leadership capacity from ‘Achiever’ to ‘Strategist’. You can find out more in my book Executive SOS where each step is explained and illustrated by the success stories of clients.

How to Shift a Culture

The most effective way to shift a culture, the “how” we do things around here, is by introducing a set of corporate values that uplift the culture at and beyond Achiever. The identification and demonstration of selected values will serve to induce greater authenticity and openness in the organization.

But it’s easier said than done as a great deal more conscious awareness needs to be brought into play – in other words creating a values-based culture is to embark on Stage Leadership Development or Vertical Learning. New skills, knowledge and competencies at a horizontal level will not serve to uplift the culture. Only the development of conscious awareness through the growth stage of ‘Catalyst’ (also called Redefining or Individualist) will enable the emergence of a values-based corporate culture.

Becoming AWARE

I recommend 5 courses of action that are neatly captured by the word AWARE.

A is for an Acronym

The set of values selected must include higher order values such as Courage, Collaboration, Innovation and Trust, and come together in an acronym so that they are remembered. For instance I CARE stood for Integrity, Courage, Accountability, Responsiveness and Energy.

W is for a Whistleblower

It is impossible to increase conscious intention without there being a requirement for everyone to become whistleblowers on obsolete ways of expressing themselves, their behaviours and actions. This can be most easily accomplished with a tag-line of sorts such as “that’s below the line”.

A is for Attention

Those of who read my post on How to Get Off the Treadmill So You Can Be a More Strategic Leader will know that I am a big fan of a regular cycle of meetings. I strong recommend a monthly Culture Meeting giving attention to one Value at a time. Cascading this meeting throughout the organization in a timely way will activate a culture shift.

The Culture Meeting Agenda is very simple:

  1. What does the Value mean to each person?
  2. What do we need to Stop Doing?
  3. What can we Keep Doing?
  4. What do we need to Start Doing?
  5. Then connect the Stop and Start behaviours so that one replaces the other e.g. When we disagree INSTEAD OF just advocating our own point of view we will ask a question first to better understand the other’s point of view.
  6. Decide to commit to the one biggest change from Stop to Start that will be a stretch and will make a significant difference.

Shifting a culture is a progressive thing. It starts slowly and then builds momentum over time provided Attention is given to this regularly. The replacement of each reactive behaviour with a values-based behaviour has a ripple effect on other similar shifts.

R is for Recognition

A Values-based Recognition Strategy is one of the most valuable and economical ways to affirm and appreciate the new behaviours and accomplishments in the organization. It’s also a great way to share success stories so that people gain a better understanding of what the Values mean in practice.

E is for Executive Coach!

Leadership Culture Workshops are ideally led by an Executive Coach who specializes in Stage Leadership Development and operates from the elevated perspective of a ‘Strategist’. They will already have embodied many of the higher order Values that are being brought into play and can therefore bring a deeper inquiry into events and situations as well as a broader perspective of interpersonal dynamics.

Whereas the Individualist masters communication with colleagues who have different action logics, the Strategist masters the second-order organizational impact of actions and agreements. The Strategist is also adept at creating shared visions across different action logics – visions that encourage both personal and organizational transformations. According to the Strategist’s action logic, organizational and social change is an iterative developmental process that requires awareness and close leadership attention. Strategists deal with conflict more comfortably than do those with other action logics, and they’re better at handling people’s instinctive resistance to change. As a result. Strategists are highly effective change agents. ~ Rooke and Torbert in The 7 Transformations of Leadership HBR

Ultimately Culture is the manifestation of leadership. The more conscious and mindful the leadership capacity demonstrated by the Senior Executive Team, the more encouragement, empowerment, enthusiasm and enjoyment in the organization to serve customers, clients and communities, and create a better world in symbiosis with the sustainability of all of life.

I hope you enjoyed this post. It’s my intent to enable individual clients and executive teams to make the quantum shift from business operations management to inspiring strategic leadership so they can bring their Vision, Values and Voice to life.

If you would like to keep track of my posts and updates, you can follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter 

If you would like a pdf of this post, click here.

Please join my Strategic Holistic Leadership Group to continue the conversation: 

If you would like to talk, please email me antoinette@antoinettebraks.com or set up a meeting with me at: https://executivesos.acuityscheduling.com/schedule.php

All the very best,

Antoinette Braks

Published by Antoinette Braks

Antoinette Braks leads the design and delivery of SHIFT Leadership Development Individual and Group Coaching Programs for Senior Executives and High Potential Leaders to enable them to join the shift from being high performing achievers to becoming inspiring strategic leaders at divisional, regional and C-suite levels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: