Workplace Culture: The Importance of Leadership in Behavior Change
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by | Jun 21, 2021 | Leader's Digest

An organization’s culture is a key to its success. Without a thriving workplace culture, companies can suffer from employee disengagement and stagnant business practices, both of which are barriers to growth, financial performance, and employee retention. Although we’re all familiar with the significance of workplace culture in creating prosperous, growing businesses (and enjoyable places to work), we often have difficulty defining exactly what culture is.

Culture Defined

Put simply, an organization’s culture is the way things are. It is a common set of behaviors combined with the underlying mindsets that influence how people work and collaborate. These behaviors and interactions are based on what employees have learned while working at the organization.

Behaviors and actions repeated over time become so ingrained in a company’s operation that they start happening naturally/on their own. This is what is so powerful about cultures—once established, they take care of themselves. Leaders don’t have to spend time “teaching” their teams how to sustain a culture because it is so inherently part of how the company operates.

In companies with healthy, vibrant cultures, this is a good thing. Leaders at these organizations will still need to lead with integrity and demonstrate the culture’s learned behaviors; however, for the most part, they can afford to “let it be” and reap the benefits of teams who work collaboratively and productively together. But the magical power of culture being able to sustain itself over time isn’t always a good thing. If you’re a leader at a company with a toxic organizational culture, you can’t afford to “let it be.” The toxic culture will exist until the learned, ingrained behaviors that support it cease.

Culture in a Hybrid World

Our environment largely shapes our behavior. So, if you work for an organization that was primarily in-office pre-pandemic but now operates with a remote or hybrid model, you cannot expect to maintain or return to the same culture that once existed. You have to reimagine it, which brings incredible possibilities.

As Bill Schaninger of McKinsey & Company states: “This is an unbelievable opportunity to remake culture. It’s rare in a leader’s lifetime to have such a clean drop for reshaping how you run the place.”

Reimaging culture puts new demands on leaders and requires skills that many managers might not have or might still be learning. I still find myself learning and refining my skillset to better align with hybrid work models while maximizing the value of each of my sales team members. This is a great article on how to strengthen company culture in a hybrid world.

Behavior Change: Leading by Example

Because culture is so deep-rooted in your company’s day-to-day operations, and because there’s been so much change at the individual and business levels, changing a company’s culture is no small feat. It can’t be done by one person in isolation because it involves changing the entrenched behaviors and attitudes of every individual within your organization. Patterns so easily build over time until they become nearly impossible for anyone to work in a way that goes against the established culture.

Leaders can and must make it a point to be intentional about the behaviors they exhibit and the actions they take. People follow what they see their leaders do—that’s how a culture gets established in the first place. If people see their leaders treating remote workers as second-class or offering (consciously or unconsciously) opportunities based on proximity or office attendance, they will do the same.

The actions you take and the behaviors you exhibit as a leader drive your company’s culture.

Avoid Climate Changes

Leaders may try to “fix” a toxic culture by making climate changes, or superficial offerings, which may take the form of fitness classes, free massages, or pooled paid time off policies. While these can be nice, they are only band-aids and do nothing to address the toxic behaviors that plague your company. Changing a company’s culture requires much more than climate changes—every leader within the company must intentionally exhibit the behaviors and actions they want to see in their people, and, over time, their people will follow.

Although it will take time—sometimes years—for an existing culture to fade and a new culture to reign, it is important for leaders to remember that they play a crucial role in establishing their organization’s culture. As one Harvard Business Review author once put it, “we create our organizational culture by the actions we take, not the other way around.”

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