The Leader As Culture-Maker

Current research suggests that toxic workplace cultures are pervasive, and that leaders who take proactive steps to create a healthy workplace culture are in the minority. Certainly, the media have offered us several illustrations of this concern over the summer—from reports of a “culture of fear” at WE Charity to allegations of bullying and harassment at Rideau Hall to claims of racism, intimidation and sexual harassment at The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Organizational culture is ephemeral and amorphous. Sometimes described as an “invisible hand”, culture is “essential to how an organization functions, but hard to guide or change.” Culture is often described simply as “the way we do things around here”. The authors of “Organizational Culture as a Tool for Change” (Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Brooke Lahneman and Simon Pek, in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2020) write, “[Organizational culture] reflects how employees act and interact, how they rise to challenges and respond to change, and how the organization as a whole represents itself to stakeholders, be they prospective employees, partners, customers or communities. It is comprised of beliefs held by an organization’s members, and vitally, the actions that are guided by and sustain these beliefs.”. Assessment tools for measuring the health of an organization’s culture are abound, but the essence of culture (whether toxic or healthy) is more readily sensed than parsed into items on a checklist. Perhaps we’ve all had the experience of visiting a workplace and making the comment as we walk away, “It just feels healthy.” That’s culture.

“Culture persists through the distributed actions of the many—not through unidirectional, top-down control.”

Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Brooke Lahneman & Simon Pek, “Organizational Culture as a Tool for Change”

The role of leaders in shaping culture is as difficult to define as culture itself. To be sure, the people at the top of an organization have a disproportionate level of influence over those they lead. Leaders are expected to “walk the talk”—that is, act in line with their espoused cultural values. . And leaders can (and should) expect to be held accountable when workplaces become toxic. An opinion piece about the unfolding situation at The Ellen DeGeneres Show said, “the head honcho is the one who’s ultimately responsible for the environment that’s created — and yet rarely faces consequences.” Warner Bros. (the studio behind Ellen’s program) dismissed three producers rather than the celebrity around whom the show has been built, who said she “relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done.” As this example illustrates, there is often a large gap between what leaders think is going on and what employees say is happening on the ground. Accenture’s 2019 study “Getting to Equal 2020: The Hidden Value of Culture-Makers” found that 68% of leaders feel they create empowering environments—in which employees can be themselves, raise concerns and innovate without fear of failure—but just 36% of employees agree. It’s not enough for leaders to issue proclamations about such cultural touchstones as diversity, innovation and work-life balance. It is the daily practices of people across an organization that create culture. As Howard-Grenville et al say, “Culture persists through the distributed actions of the many—not through unidirectional, top-down control.”

How then, can leaders foster and contribute to an environment where these “distributed actions of the many” create a healthy culture—as one of the small group of culture-makers who support a bottom-up shift in culture? During my time as executive director of International Justice Mission Canada from 2013 to 2018, I observed our workplace become progressively a more empowering environment as individual team members were invited to act according to their convictions regarding the traits of a healthy workplace. My contribution was largely to endorse the growth that was energized by the highly-motivated, deeply-invested team. Or, as IJM Canada’s former director of organizational effectiveness said, “Ed hired smart people and trusted them. He cast a vision and supported the team in achieving that vision and he didn’t need to get all the glory.”

The authentication of cultural values by way of embodiment in the leader’s story helps them be “caught” without being taught.

Here are three ways senior leaders can contribute to the development of a healthy culture:

  • Establish organizational norms by practising them first and then by making them part of your leadership story. Before becoming executive director of IJM Canada, I served as director of operations during the time when the organization was still in start-up mode. As such, I was instrumental in hiring the first dozen or so employees. I can think of at least two ways that, through my approach to hiring—where I was simply being true to my own values—I contributed to the development of organizational culture. First, I rejected any job applications that contained even one spelling mistake or formatting error—and then let everyone know that this was my practice. Without saying another word, I made it clear that attention to detail mattered. Second, I included previous volunteer experience among the criteria I used to identify applicants who would be invited for an interview, believing that this would lead us to individuals who were intrinsically motivated to “do good” and would consequently demonstrate a high level of engagement in their work. Many who I hired have since moved on to leadership roles with other organizations, but almost to a person they are all still working in the charity sector. The authentication of cultural values by way of embodiment in the leader’s story helps them be “caught” without being taught.
  • Know when it’s time to get out of the way and allow change to emerge from the bottom up. Many of my best ideas as a leader were never my idea in the first place. As an organization deeply engaged in rescuing and restoring survivors of sexual exploitation, the staff at IJM Canada were vulnerable to vicarious trauma—but I was slow to recognize it. It wasn’t until a team member who happened to be a social worker (although she was working as a student mobilization coordinator at the time) confronted me on the issue that we took steps to provide training for our staff on self-care (including how to recognize the signs of vicarious trauma and burnout). On another occasion, our senior leadership team proposed the introduction of performance bonuses as a means of rewarding outstanding performers. The staff with one voice rejected the idea, asserting that any success one person might enjoy was reflective of the contributions of various team members. In a healthy culture, the leader’s personal and professional growth will often be kick-started by the enthusiasm and commitment emerging from those they lead.
  • Transfer power as much as possible to those entrusted with making day-to-day decisions. The application of the principle of subsidiarity (the tenet of Catholic social teaching that holds that a larger and higher-ranking body should not exercise functions which could be more efficiently carried out by a smaller and lesser body) to organizational development has the potential to transform the culture of organizations. When leaders embrace subsidiarity, they recognize that along with the delegation of responsibility to achieve certain organizational goals is conveyed the power to choose the means through which to accomplish the end—consistent with the organization’s strategy, of course. As there are risks associated with inviting people to use their gifts according to their own judgment, leading this way requires trust in the character and capacity of your team members (where experience has demonstrated that such trust is warranted). At the peak of my experience as executive director at IJM Canada, it seemed at times that I as the leader had become redundant, but I was always ready to inject vision, make subtle corrections, and provide advice when asked. As the former director of marketing and public relations at IJM Canada said, “We knew we could present opposing opinions and challenge decisions without it hurting our career trajectory because there was an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Feeling safe in our relationships at work made us exponentially more effective.” “Subsidiarity brooks no evasion or shirking: leaders and employees are always and every day in this together—failures, successes and all.” (Respect in Action: Applying Subsidiarity in Business, 36)

Prioritizing culture is a win:win:win—more employees flourishing in the workplace, improved stakeholder return, and greater good achieved in the world.

It’s a myth that senior leadership or specialists from the human resources department exclusively define and direct culture, but leaders do have a disproportionate influence in the shaping of culture—especially as they take action to encourage or discourage the bottom-up currents of change that are gathering momentum within organizations. Leaders who think culture is important are still in the minority: the Accenture survey found that only 21% of the leaders surveyed identified culture as a top priority. But not surprisingly, those organizations led by culture-makers committed to building healthier, more inclusive, more innovative cultures are growing more than twice as fast as their peers. It’s a win:win:win—more employees flourishing in the workplace, improved stakeholder return, and greater good achieved in the world.

As a resource for executives who wish to assess and improve their organization’s culture, I recommend The Reaction Dashboard by Chris Wignall.

© 2020 Long Run Consulting. Banner photo by iStock. Used by permission.

  • Mark Wollenberg
    Posted at 23:08h, 08 September Reply

    Excellent piece Ed. You articulated why my 11 years at IJM Canada under your leadership were some of the best years of my professional career.

  • Beth Wood
    Posted at 23:46h, 17 September Reply

    Big sigh.. if only we saw more of these aspects.

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