The Missing Link in Culture Success

An Interview with Dr. Robert A. Cooke

It’s been nearly three years since Merriam-Webster declared “culture” its 2014 Word of the Year, but it has yet to lose any momentum. Culture has become ubiquitous in the business world, with media giants from Forbes to CNN to Huffington Post regularly publishing articles on the topic. Numerous articles cite culture as a key contributor (if not the key contributor) to retaining top talent, and research shows an undeniable relationship between culture and financial performance.

But with the spotlight firmly placed on workplace culture, leaders and organizations often miss a crucial piece of the puzzle. Where are all the articles, posts, and interviews on climate?

Disentangling Culture and Climate

According to Dr. Robert Cooke, CEO of Human Synergistics and Associate Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “The organization as a whole, including all departments, teams, and individuals within it—and really, almost every outcome relevant to them—is impacted by culture and climate.” However, as he says, “One of the problems we have with culture is that everything has become culture.” People often mistakenly talk about culture when what they are actually referring to is climate.

So what’s the difference?

“Cultures initially evolve as members of a group or organization figure out how to solve problems and get things done. As they begin to recognize patterns with respect to what works and ‘how we do things around here,’ norms (or unwritten rules) about how members are ‘expected’ to interact and approach their work emerge. Over time, systems, structures, and technologies are put into place to further facilitate problem-solving and task accomplishment. Climate reflects members’ shared perceptions of these and other evolving properties of the organization, as well as their attitudes toward them.

“Organizational culture is often defined as the underlying assumptions and values that can lead to norms that guide the ways people interact, solve problems, and approach tasks,” says Dr. Cooke. Espoused values may be quite constructive and emphasize, for example, personal growth, teamwork, and quality.  However, the pattern of behaviors that emerges and the systems and structures that are put into place may be driven by other, less salient values, such as expediency and short-term success. This can lead to a disconnect between value statements and what members view as the ideal culture for their organization, on the one hand, and the day-to-day operating culture that they end up with, on the other.

“For people joining an organization, beliefs are based on perceptions and, therefore, are shaped by climate. They may see, for example, that there are a lot of negative consequences and not much in the way of rewards and recognition for failing when trying to make improvements—even when the initiative seemed justified. That can lead to a defensive set of beliefs and norms. The negative perception of rewards systems can lead to avoidance norms and “not getting involved”—even if the leaders ‘talk about’ the value of participation, risk taking, and innovation.”

In What Other Ways Does Climate Shape Culture?

The perceptions and attitudes of members influence their beliefs and the operating culture of the organization in many ways. Some examples of the impact of climatic factors on the norms measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory® include:

  • Job Design—Members may view their jobs as offering little autonomy, get little or no feedback on their work, and feel that the work they’re doing has no meaning or significance (suppressing Constructive norms for Achievement and Humanistic behaviors).
  • Communication—They may perceive that communication is inadequate, with those at the top not communicating what’s going on in the organization (promoting Defensive norms for Dependent and Avoidant behaviors).
  • Influence—Employees may feel that decision making at their level is minimal and that they have little involvement in decisions that affect their department or organization (suppressing Constructive norms for Self-Actualizing behaviors).
  • Recognition—Employees may feel that they’re working hard and making great achievements, but their efforts will not be recognized by their superiors (reducing norms for Achievement behaviors).
  • Employee Involvement—Members have good ideas that could improve their work, but the organization simply isn’t going to change (increasing norms for Conventional behaviors).

Perceptions like these lead to a defensive culture rather than a constructive culture.

A constructive culture does matter and, in practice, leads to such outcomes as engagement and performance. Research shows that culture and performance go hand-in-hand. “We’ve looked at relationships between culture and desired outcomes,” says Dr. Cooke. “For members, constructive cultures drive positive outcomes like satisfaction, motivation, and role consistency/role conflict. At the team and unit level, culture leads to cooperation, teamwork, and inter-unit coordination. And at the organization level, we see culture leading to better performance in terms of quality and better outcomes in terms of profitability. We’ve seen constructive cultures leading to positive outcomes and the attainment of specific goals across industries, including healthcare and hospitals, energy and nuclear power, media and publishing, and manufacturing.”

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Leadership

Both research and anecdotal articles accentuate the interrelationship of culture and leadership. While those at the top levels of organizations must buy into the need for culture change for initiatives to be successful, it’s more than that. Leader behavior sets the example for how others approach their work, and the systems and structures they put into place inevitably and eventually are viewed by members at all levels and, over time, translated into an operating culture. With such a massive impact on the overall culture of an organization, it’s critical that leaders understand not only their effect on culture but on climate as well.

Instead of focusing on only one specific outcome of culture (such as innovation or engagement) or one specific problem (adaptability or integration), Dr. Cooke recommends that leaders consider the big picture and create a constructive culture that will be relevant to multiple problems and outcomes. “If they keep in mind the broader culture they want to create, that will lead them to set up, for example, performance appraisal systems, decentralized structures, and rich and interactive communication structures that will lead to a positive climate, the constructive culture they view as ideal, and the attainment of goals.”

Set the Course for Culture Success

Finally, knowing that leaders both shape and are shaped by the culture of their organizations, what can they personally do on a day-to-day basis to set their teams (and themselves) up for success?

To ensure that they are having the kind of constructive impact so crucial for organizational performance, executives and managers can develop and utilize prescriptive (as opposed to restrictive) leadership:

  • Prescriptive leaders carry out their responsibilities in a way that guides others toward goals and opportunities and focuses on their team members’ empowerment.
  • Restrictive leaders lead in a way that emphasizes what they don’t want, including what others shouldn’t be doing, what they’re doing wrong, and what they must do—whether or not they want to do it.

“Practically everything the leader does impacts the culture, and in many ways, one of the most important things a leader does is to create and communicate the values and norms of the organization,” says Dr. Cooke. “Leaders can affect the cultures of their organizations and shape them by role modeling, sending expectations, and by using prescriptive strategies for communicating, monitoring performance, mentoring, influencing, and doing all the things leaders do.”

Continue the Conversation

Dr. Cooke, along with an inspiring lineup of culture experts that includes Marshall Goldsmith, Edgar Schein, and Peter Fuda, will take a deeper dive into the leadership and culture connection at the 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. This year’s conference theme is “Leadership and Culture—It’s a Two-Way Street.” Join the Ultimate Culture Conversation on October 3, 2017, at the Fairmont Millennium Park in Chicago to hear more insights and enjoy dynamic networking and culture success stories. More information, as well as a full list of speakers and presentation topics, is available on the Human Synergistics conference page.

Need help shaping your culture for success? Explore our 90-Day Culture and Performance Quick-Start Program, which leverages the most widely used and thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).

Interested in learning more about culture, climate, and leadership? Attend our popular Culture Accreditation Workshop and take the first step toward becoming accredited in the OCI. You’ll also explore The Culture Journey Experience, our interactive and engaging approach to clarifying the complexities of culture, leadership, and their connection to performance improvement in an accelerated environment.

About the Author

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Meghan Oliver

Meghan Oliver has spent 10 years in the field of workplace culture and leadership as a member of the Human Synergistics team. She specializes in documenting the change journeys of organizations across industries, as well as helping others understand Human Synergistics' processes and change solutions. Meghan also helps lead the Ultimate Culture Conferences, which bring hundreds of culture champions together to connect and learn from culture and leadership innovators. Her work has been featured by Nonprofit World, Switch+Shift, and PsychCentral.