Can You Engineer Work Culture? 1 of 3

EngCultureLeaders see the potential for growth beyond already functioning efforts like lean or six-sigma. They seek ways to make innovation the new everyday ‘normal’ to increase performance, engagement, and agility. They want to move past process activities to influence leadership, customer-service, and collaborative behaviors and for all employees to innovate vs. only a few enthusiasts.

Tangible steps can be taken to strengthen or better align an organization’s work culture, but it is challenging. Three reasons why:

1 – Any influence is indirect

A work culture is the by-product of how actions, behaviors, and words are positively or negatively reinforced and is largely influenced by leaderships’ actions. This explains why functionally identical facilities within an enterprise often develop distinct characteristics.
A nurse once surprised me by saying the “culture is better on the other side” of the same hospital floor. Different nurses led the left and right sides of her floor which led to a perceptible difference, despite being only 50 feet apart.

Culture, therefore, is less about what an organization does than how it does it.

Since a work culture is a symptom of how we work, we must target its root influences, the daily behaviors of leaders and principle actors. Adjusting behaviors, however, is not as simple as issuing new standard operating procedures to revise process activities.

2 – It’s a moving, weighted average

New leaders are frequently surprised to see their words and actions discounted. Employees interpret new leadership through their experience, giving MORE weight to past treatment and LESS weight to today’s dialogue. They wait for their new leaders to eventually act like previous leaders. It may not be completely fair but history is a powerful tutor.

Patience is required for it can take time for people to consider your words and actions at face value.

In an example referenced in a previous culture definition article, it took 5 years for a workforce to finally conclude their business’ new owner was actually as people-oriented and trust-worthy as he claimed from his first day on the job.

3- It’s the entire management team not just you

A work culture rarely forms based on a single leader’s actions as it considers every management team member. While each of us should strive to become as effective and honorable as Lincoln (I wrote a leadership guide based on his actions), your individual influence can be blunted.

If your organization tolerates or even rewards leaders whose actions contradict the organization’s stated values – people will recognize the hypocrisy and lower their commitment to match the lowest level of allowed leadership.

A leadership teams’ collective influence can only rise to the level of their least effective member.

Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE spoke of this collective impact when he said leaving one or two bad managers in place is the same as negating 1,000 leadership speeches.

In Summary

A work culture cannot be directly manipulated – it is a product of the quality of leadership’s practice of authority, discipline, encouragement, and support. Culture can be influenced – over time – by sound, results-driven, respectful leadership when practiced by every member of a leadership team.

You may not have the degree of influence over your culture you first envisioned, but the benefits are still worth a determined, evidence-based effort from you and your team.

Two follow-up articles will cover:
– Reasons why leaders should try to strengthen culture and then, a
– Description of techniques we’ve found beneficial.

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