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The Missing Link in Culture Success

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The Missing Link in Culture Success

It’s been nearly three years since Merriam-Webster declared “culture” its 2014 Word of the Year, but it has yet to lose any momentum. Culture has become ubiquitous in the business world, with media giants from Forbes to CNN to Huffington Post regularly publishing articles on the topic. Numerous articles cite culture as a key contributor (if not the key contributor) to retaining top talent, and research shows an undeniable relationship between culture and financial performance.

But with the spotlight firmly placed on workplace culture, leaders and organizations often miss a crucial piece of the puzzle. Where are all the articles, posts, and interviews on climate?

Disentangling Culture and Climate According to Dr. Robert Cooke, CEO of Human Synergistics and Associate Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “The organization as a whole, including all departments, teams, and individuals within it—and really, almost every outcome relevant to them—is impacted by culture and climate.” However, as he says, “One of the problems we have with culture is that everything has become culture.” People often mistakenly talk about culture when what they are actually referring to is climate.
So what’s the difference?

“Cultures initially evolve as members of a group or organization figure out how to solve problems and get things done. As they begin to recognize patterns with respect to what works and ‘how we do things around here,’ norms (or unwritten rules) about how members are ‘expected’ to interact and approach their work emerge. Over time, systems, structures, and technologies are put into place to further facilitate problem-solving and task accomplishment. Climate reflects members’ shared perceptions of these and other evolving properties of the organization, as well as their attitudes toward them.

“Organizational culture is often defined as the underlying assumptions and values that can lead to norms that guide the ways people interact, solve problems, and approach tasks,” says Dr. Cooke. Espoused values may be quite constructive and emphasize, for example, personal growth, teamwork, and quality. However, the pattern of behaviors that emerges and the systems and structures that are put into place may be driven by other, less salient values, such as expediency and short-term success. This can lead to a disconnect between value statements and what members view as the ideal culture for their organization, on the one hand, and the day-to-day operating culture that they end up with, on the other.

“For people joining an organization, beliefs are based on perceptions and, therefore, are shaped by climate. They may see, for example, that there are a lot of negative consequences and not much in the way of rewards and recognition for failing when trying to make improvements—even when the initiative seemed justified. That can lead to a defensive set of beliefs and norms. The negative perception of rewards systems can lead to avoidance norms and “not getting involved”—even if the leaders ‘talk about’ the value of participation, risk taking, and innovation.”

In What Other Ways Does Climate Shape Culture?

The perceptions and attitudes of members influence their beliefs and the operating culture of the organization in many ways. Some examples of the impact of climatic factors on the norms measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory® include:

Job Design—Members may view their jobs as offering little autonomy, get little or no feedback on their work, and feel that the work they’re doing has no meaning or significance (suppressing Constructive norms for Achievement and Humanistic behaviors).

    Communication—They may perceive that communication is inadequate, with those at the top not communicating what’s going on in the organization (promoting Defensive norms for Dependent and Avoidant behaviors).

    Influence—Employees may feel that decision making at their level is minimal and that they have little involvement in decisions that affect their department or organization (suppressing Constructive norms for Self-Actualizing behaviors).

    Recognition—Employees may feel that they’re working hard and making great achievements, but their efforts will not be recognized by their superiors (reducing norms for Achievement behaviors).

    Employee Involvement—Members have good ideas that could improve their work, but the organization simply isn’t going to change (increasing norms for Conventional behaviors).

Perceptions like these lead to a defensive culture rather than a constructive culture.

A constructive culture does matter and, in practice, leads to such outcomes as engagement and performance. Research shows that culture and performance go hand-in-hand. “We’ve looked at relationships between culture and desired outcomes,” says Dr. Cooke. “For members, constructive cultures drive positive outcomes like satisfaction, motivation, and role consistency/role conflict. At the team and unit level, culture leads to cooperation, teamwork, and inter-unit coordination. And at the organization level, we see culture leading to better performance in terms of quality and better outcomes in terms of profitability. We’ve seen constructive cultures leading to positive outcomes and the attainment of specific goals across industries, including healthcare and hospitals, energy and nuclear power, media and publishing, and manufacturing.”

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Leadership

In other words, depth trumps breadth when it comes to accounts — top sellers focused on building deeper relationships with fewer customers rather than casting a wider net of shallower engagement. Of course, these metrics are not one size-fits-all and the right balance varies by company based on what they are selling (e.g., highly consultative sales processes benefit most from depth whereas more transactional models can benefit from breadth). Regardless, these key metrics relating to time spent with customers and account relationships have emerged both as strong predictors of sales outcomes as well as highly actionable metrics for sales leaders to track, incorporate into territory design and use to help their teams improve performance.

Instead of focusing on only one specific outcome of culture (such as innovation or engagement) or one specific problem (adaptability or integration), Dr. Cooke recommends that leaders consider the big picture and create a constructive culture that will be relevant to multiple problems and outcomes. “If they keep in mind the broader culture they want to create, that will lead them to set up, for example, performance appraisal systems, decentralized structures, and rich and interactive communication structures that will lead to a positive climate, the constructive culture they view as ideal, and the attainment of goals.”

Set the Course for Culture Success

Finally, knowing that leaders both shape and are shaped by the culture of their organizations, what can they personally do on a day-to-day basis to set their teams (and themselves) up for success?

To ensure that they are having the kind of constructive impact so crucial for organizational performance, executives and managers can develop and utilize prescriptive (as opposed to restrictive) leadership:

    Prescriptive leaders carry out their responsibilities in a way that guides others toward goals and opportunities and focuses on their team members’ empowerment.

    Restrictive leaderslead in a way that emphasizes what they don’t want, including what others shouldn’t be doing, what they’re doing wrong, and what they must do—whether or not they want to do it.

“Practically everything the leader does impacts the culture, and in many ways, one of the most important things a leader does is to create and communicate the values and norms of the organization,” says Dr. Cooke. “Leaders can affect the cultures of their organizations and shape them by role modeling, sending expectations, and by using prescriptive strategies for communicating, monitoring performance, mentoring, influencing, and doing all the things leaders do.”

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