There is a lot of focus these days on progressive and positive culture being a differentiator for organizations. And rightly so. But this sort of culture, without consistent and complementary behavior, can’t exist. Organizations can run all the education programs they like, place posters on walls, and talk about the great culture, but if leaders don’t exemplify the culture – it is like pouring water into a leaking vessel. If a leader’s behavior masks the culture in a negative way, this speaks louder than all the corporate messages about a healthy culture.
“She/he is a right b***h to work for”. A comment I heard about one of the senior executives in an organization. (I have kept it gender neutral, because this doesn’t matter). This organization has invested heavily in making culture a major reason for their raison d’être and prides itself on the efforts made to generate a climate of healthy and correct attitudes/behaviors. Many employees would speak commendably about the culture of the organization in open session, but the water cooler conversations tell a different story.
The difference between reciting cultural mantras and experiencing cultural application is massive. The old adage of leaders “walking the talk” springs to mind.
So, what is it like to work in an organization that parades a healthy culture, but where leaders demonstrate contradictory behavior. At best, hypocritical. At worst, demoralizing. Another old adage seems to apply in those organizations – “do what I say, not what I do”. There are the face-to-face conversations and completely different behind-the-back conversations. A culture with a sunny side and a dark side. Employment with a healthy front and a poisoned experience.
Why don’t leaders behave the way the culture advocates. Power is one reason. For some leaders, their power and position become a corrupting influence on their behavior. They are all smiles with their colleagues in the leadership team, but turn into witches or evil wizards when facing off to their subordinates. (A timely Halloween reference). Some leaders show absolute compliance and supportive behavior in certain settings, and yet behave like tyrants or dictators in others. Let me illustrate – “collaboration” is often held up as a virtuous behavior for positive culture. Leaders in the organization will wax lyrical about the virtues of collaboration. But when he or she becomes autocratic and uncollaborative, what has happened. Their personal behavior traits have over-ridden the aspired cultural traits.
Leadership behavior goes deep! It springs from personality, learned-traits, experiences, beliefs, family-norms, alternative cultures, and many other sources. When an organization espouses a culture that exemplifies the best behaviors, attitudes, and convictions, it needs to work hard on the leaders who must lead this culture. Perhaps more than anything an organization needs to promote an atmosphere of permission to call out counter-cultural behavior – led from the top. Employees also need to have courage to confront, with the backing and protection of the organization that this will not result in negative repercussions.
So, leaders – ask for feedback, listen to the good, bad, and ugly. Be honest with yourself. Hold a mirror up to your behavior frequently. Hold culture conversations regularly with your teams, encouraging everyone to be candid with positive and negative examples. Above all, ensure that you treat everyone with the respect and admiration that a positive culture advocates!