Leading and defining organizational culture and why it matters

LL 98 organizational cultureHow would you describe the overall atmosphere in your office? Are your public statements verified or disproved by your employees’ behaviors? What kinds of perceptions are revealed in their candid comments? Do your people feel appreciated—or depreciated? How does their collective demeanor affect the quality of their work and the comprehensive customer experience?

Like water to a fish, the culture of our organizations surrounds us and provides the media in which we fail, flail, or flourish. And although we may pay little attention to it, it nevertheless defines us—and our clientele.

Consider the overall ambience and kinds of service you would expect at each of the following types of restaurants: a middle school cafeteria, truck stop diner, bar & grill, fast food outlet, concession stand, casual dining, coffeehouse, smorgasbord, supper club, and dinner theatre. While they all serve food (or what is at least ostensibly edible!), the great variation in their conduct and standards—and our expectations—is governed by their individual cultures.

Organizational cultures are expressed in the collective behavior of people within them, and how their actions are perceived and received by others. That group dynamic in turn impacts its corporate and community value.

For the leader who is intent on effecting positive change within the company, as well as its presence, prospects and profits in the marketplace, no other aspect is as crucial to its future.

Healthy organizational cultures stimulate high employee engagement and support strong internal communications, which in turn generate higher levels of innovation and growth. Where quality is valued over quantity, creativity is more important than conformity, and cooperation trumps competition, both the leadership team and the business thrive. Who doesn’t want that?

That kind of prosperous people-oriented approach directly conflicts with the kind of timeworn thinking that exalts power and control. The outmoded aggressive/defensive environment stifles cooperation and fosters stress. Its inhabitants tend to act not on the basis of competence, but on how they may enhance their own status. Studies have shown that cultures that value their tasks more than their people do so at their own risk: they in effect endorse selfishness over group success. That’s not only counterproductive, that’s a shame!

For the conscientious leader, there’s no question that an organizational culture is enabling. The question is: what is it enabling? More specifically, what are the overarching values, beliefs and principles that guide how your people interact with each other, their customers and stakeholders? And how do those behaviors affect teamwork, productivity, quality and results?

To assess just what the culture facilitates, we must first examine the underlying concepts and practices that drive the culture. Then, if a change in heading is needed, we can take measures to redefine it.

In each of four cultural dimensions, determine the degree to which each aspect is valued by answering the questions twice: once from the viewpoint of what the culture currently enables and again from what the executive leadership intends. Discrepancies and patterns between them show where changes may need to be made in the culture, the leadership, or both.


  • How methodically do you establish and communicate vision, goals, objectives and strategic direction?
  • How thoroughly are policies and organizational issues communicated throughout and between all levels?
  • How carefully do you develop and train new leaders with capability, vision, direction and purpose?


  • How diligently do you promote, teach, enforce, model and reward integrity, excellence, and other absolute standards?
  • How clearly do you integrate your core values into all operations, and seek to function with consistency and unity?
  • How systematically do you appraise work performance, develop individualized goals with employee input, and reward quality and achievement?


  • How comprehensively do you engage and equip people and develop personal and organizational capacity?
  • How expansively do you encourage and empower cooperation, partnerships, and multiple viewpoints and perspectives?
  • How capably do you delegate authority, respect each employee’s contributions, invest in their success, and celebrate their achievements?


  • How consistently do you create and lead change and maintain commitments to your customers?
  • How skillfully do you foster employee creativity, and pursue multiple possibilities in planning?
  • How attentively do you provide ongoing training for assessing industry trends and customer needs, and empower a responsive freedom to innovate?

MasterPoint: Executive leadership determines organizational culture; the culture empowers everything else.