Long Live the Culture Kings…or Not!

By Kathy Miller on March 31st, 2014

The new king of business

Suppose that you are a leader of your company and that you are passionate about  its potential. However you believe that the culture must  change if the company is to live up to  its promise.   So you construct a vision statement, communicate it broadly and require new attitudes and behaviors that you specify in great detail.  Will this get the job done?  Probably not, unless you are the king of your company instead of merely a leader in it.  Even if you believe that you are the king of the culture, as many of us do when we rise to the senior leadership positions, you are likely to fail in your attempts to impose your views on the organization.  Why?  Because in these times, even kings lack this kind of power.  And let’s face it.  Most of us are not kings of our companies.  So how should we  proceed when we truly believe that our companies need a cultural facelift? 

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “culture change.”   Try googling the phrase organizational culture  and you will find hundreds of citations  that cover topics such as how to define it, how to diagnose it, and how to  leverage it.  Now enter the phrase “culture change” and you will find countless more articles providing advice to leaders on  how to transform  it or align it to the business strategy.    Most of these articles assume  that our companies have only one culture, and that we  leaders are in control of it.  Wow!  If only it were that simple and we had that kind of power! 

These days no  leader or even group of leaders can change a culture merely through declaration, inspiration or even through sheer will.  Organizational culture is much more than merely a tool for management.  Of course leaders are not powerless.   After all, leaders function within the company culture, and most certainly impact it through their attitudes and behaviors.  Sometimes their influence is  intentional and other times it is inadvertent.  However other factors bear on culture as well.  For example, most of our organizations have more than one culture.  Even when the company has a dominant culture, chances are that subcultures exist, such as departments, occupational groups and the like.  In addition, organizational inertia as well as genuine resistance to change could thwart  our best efforts  to alter the culture(s) through proclamation or edict.

If you doubt the validity of these arguments, ask yourself this question:  when was the last time you made lasting changes in response to an authority telling you to do so?  I don’t know about you but I, as a member of the Boomer generation, have never allowed authorities to have that kind of command over my beliefs, values and behaviors!  I have developed and refined my own world view through my life experiences, most of which have resulted from my interactions with others in one form or another.  Needless to say, I do realize that sometimes I am a victim of my own biases and hidden assumptions. Even though I like to think that I am a rational person, I am sure that many of my beliefs and behaviors are shaped by hidden forces such as the norms that comprise the culture in which I am already embedded. Nevertheless, I have developed my own world view rather than accepting one that is dictated. 

So am I suggesting that I have never changed?  Of course not!  But I am saying that I cannot be changed!  No one, no matter how powerful, can force me to change against my will — at least not in a lasting, meaningful way.  In fact, if I feel coerced, I am very likely to resist, even if I would have embraced the changes under different circumstances.   So how do I, as well as others, change?  And what do changes in individuals mean for organizational culture?  Most of us are more likely to adopt changes when we are part of the process to define what should be.   The process usually involves  conversations with others.  While the context in which we are embedded can unconsciously impact our beliefs and behaviors, our social interactions and our self-reflections can lead to more intentional shared knowledge, common definitions of situations and collective strategies for acting.[1] 

So what role do leaders play in the process of culture change?  Those in authority, as well as others, can engage me in conversations that expose me to new ideas and fresh ways of thinking.  They can inspire me through stories that tap my emotions.  They can provide me with opportunities to interact with people who view the world differently.  They can alter the collective conversations among my associates by challenging us to question hidden assumptions.  And they can intentionally choose the ideas and behaviors to reinforce.   Over time change may emerge both at the individual and collective levels.  The results of the collective conversations and interactions are not under the control of any one person or group.  Thus, neither the path to change nor the outcomes of the process is perfectly predictable.  Yet transformed cultures emerge from these processes. 

Next time you are tempted to adopt the behavior of kings, slow down and reflect on how you can actually affect change.   You can’t impose it.  You can’t manage it.  However, you can lead it.  By  communicating  a powerful vision you can set the direction for the organization.  And you can  enable the conversations and interactions through which changes in the culture emerge.  The culture kings are no more.  Long live the real leaders!



[1] Scott, Richard. Institutions and Organizations, 4th Edition.  Sage Publications, 2014, pg. 47.