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Are you leading the culture of your organization, or is culture leading you?

How can you avoid passive or aggressive norms and pursue a constructive culture?

5 min read


Are you leading the culture of your organization, or is culture leading you?

Amy Hirschi/Unsplash

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Janet L. Szumal and Robert A. Cooke.

Leadership is one of the most powerful forces shaping organizational culture, specifically in terms of the shared beliefs and norms that drive behavior and performance. However, it’s a two-way street: Culture shapes the thinking and behavioral styles of team members at all levels, including at the top.

Your leaders may already recognize this but possibly don’t appreciate the extent to which the culture of the organization influences how they approach change — including cultural change.  Ironically, the biggest obstacle to changing an organization’s culture is culture itself.

The changes that you and your leadership team initiate — and, possibly more importantly, the way you go about implementing them — will likely be shaped by the very norms that you are hoping to dispel. 

Leaders’ impact on culture

The direction of a leader’s influence on an organization’s people and its culture can be:

  • Constructive: Those who work with the leader are encouraged and believe they are expected to approach both their work (tasks) and interactions with others (people) in ways that allow them to self-develop, learn new skills, stretch, and be fully engaged.
  • Passive/defensive: The leader causes people to believe they must interact with others (including the leader) in self-protective ways that help them to maintain their personal safety and security.
  • Aggressive/defensive: People are driven and motivated by their leader to approach their work in forceful, self-promoting ways that elevate their own status and interests.

Leaders can influence people and culture in one direction, two or even all three. However, research consistently shows that organizations with strong constructive cultures (and relatively weak passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive cultures) are the most engaging, productive and effective.

To impact people and company culture in a more constructive direction:

Check in with your own behaviors. In one organization, leaders were known for calling out people who didn’t get involved or questioned certain initiatives, including culture change. This was demoralizing, had both a passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive impact on the culture, and led to low engagement and performance. Although the leaders said they wanted to create a more Constructive culture, their behavior and actions communicated something else.

The lesson here is clear: Treat subordinates with respect and lead by example. Part of the way to create a constructive culture is by leaders modifying their behavior because it has a direct influence on the environment of the people reporting to them.

Align your decisions.  As a leader, it’s important to allow room for your team to express concerns, share ideas and take initiative. In addition to checking their direct influence, leaders must indirectly support movement in this direction.

Examples include providing more training and making other adjustments to organizational systems, structures, the design of jobs, and the skills and qualities of other people so that they are consistent with a constructive culture.

Culture’s impact on leaders

Yes, leaders directly and indirectly influence their organization’s culture. However, like everyone else, the way that leaders approach tasks, people, problems and change is influenced by culture. This reciprocal relationship between culture and leadership is often not recognized and managed by leaders.

Changes in leaders’ thinking, for example, sometimes lead to parallel changes in both their behavior and in their decisions about the internal environment — causing the behavior of other people to shift and, over time, causing the culture to shift.

Other times, leaders decide to add some training or restructure, but do so using a top-down, perfectionistic, risk-averse or other kind of defensive approach that reflects the behavioral norms that they are trying to change. When leaders don’t realize the impact of culture on them, they inadvertently fuel unproductive norms and expectations rather than shift them in a more constructive direction.

Taking the lead on organizational culture

To effectively and sustainably achieve performance improvements, individual and organizational development initiatives must simultaneously address leaders and members as interconnected individuals. Organizational members need to see from a leader’s initial changes that a different set of behaviors is truly expected and will be supported. This requires that leaders gain awareness of their own thinking and behavior and how they affect — and are affected by — their organization’s current culture.


Janet L. Szumal, Ph.D., is the author of Creating Constructive Cultures, which illustrates how organizational leaders around the world create more productive workplace cultures. Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D., is CEO of Human Synergistics International and specializes in the development of surveys such as the Organizational Culture Inventory and Leadership/Impact.

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