Leadership Organisational Culture Teamwork

Reflections on organisational culture

I followed the Lance Armstrong saga with interest, mainly because I facilitated a large culture change program for a business where we used a motivational video about teamwork starring Armstrong and the US Postal team. The video was enormously inspiring and covered his journey through testicular cancer and back to being on the very top of his sport. All great stuff, and led to fantastic learnings. Now however, I am looking back and feeling disappointed, cynical and even a bit foolish at having been misled. Now, I won’t speculate on whether Armstrong is guilty of doping, but while there is even a sliver of doubt I suspect I shall continue to feel that way.

The culture of the sport of cycling appears to have been pro doping. Some of the news articles have quoted cyclists as saying “everyone else was doing it. If I wanted to be competitive I had to as well”.

In organisations, culture can be summed up by “everyone else is doing it”. It’s fascinating the impact that “everyone else is doing it” has on people. Most people will act in accordance with the views and behaviours of the collective, even if they profess to have other beliefs. It comes from a basic human instinct – the need to fit in. We are hard-wired to want to fit in with the group, team or tribe. This instinct goes back to ancient times when if someone didn’t fit in they became an outcast. In those days being an outcast was a problem, as you were likely to freeze, starve or be eaten by something nasty.

How does “everyone else is doing it” develop? The collective behaviours of leaders creates culture. Culture forms over time from people observing how leaders behave, what they pay attention to, what they reward or sanction, how people get promoted, and so on. This information is used to decide what to do and how to behave to fit in. It’s not only the appointed leaders who create culture but also the key influencers – the people who others look up to (or are afraid of). They are leaders too.

How do you change your culture? If you want to change culture, the leaders need to change (either they change their behaviour, or you get new leaders). Of course there is lots of additional work to do on the processes, systems and business structures to enable culture change, but fundamentally the biggest lever in culture change is the behaviour, values and mindsets of the leaders. I have observed significant cultural shift following a change of management team. The values and behaviours of the new team were radically different and that difference was felt immediately at the levels below them.

Culture change makes people uncomfortable. Changing the rules of play is challenging for people. The old culture was stable, settled and comfortable. People will feel (and express) their discomfort until the new culture is established and this will be reflected in lower employee engagement / satisfaction etc.

Symbols are important. Think about what the symbols in your business say. Are they congruent with the culture that you want? I have been coaching an executive who is working on being more approachable. One of the symbols that needs to change is his office – out of the way, down a corridor and hard to find. It is pointless saying “my door is always open”, if the symbolism of your location screams “leave me alone”! A CEO I once knew changed his office layout around by switching places with his Executive Assistant so he was in the office next to the company café and his EA was in the secluded office behind his. He took down the blinds and had floor to ceiling glass installed. The new layout said “come in and see me”! And guess what? People felt comfortable approaching him.

Culture is a huge topic and there are many more things I could mention, but I am interested in hearing from others. What are some of your key observations about organisational culture?

Contact Ros for leadership development, coaching and facilitation, or if you have questions about the topics – or visit Shaping Change at

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