How Leaders Impact Culture

Lead-Culture Byline

How Leaders Impact Culture

Over the years, one the questions that almost always comes up when starting to assess and change and organization’s culture is “What’s the best way to improve our culture quickly?”

While there is no ‘quick fix’ when it comes to long-term, sustainable culture change, there is one constant causal factor that always needs to be addressed in some way. That of course, is Leadership.

Many years ago, as a new department manager, I remember looking forward to conducting my first set of Performance Reviews. In hindsight, that performance review system was quite advanced and thorough. I spent many evenings diligently giving “scores” for each performance criteria.

We had to get the HR manager to review them prior to giving them. During this process, the HR manager questioned every score that was not a “three” (average). Because I had a lot, this took a long time. At the end of this process, I asked the HR manager how he would be able to find the time to do the same process with every department manager. His reply was that I was one of the few managers who did not give straight threes for every person in every category.

I was shocked. Didn’t the managers realize that by giving everyone a three they were missing an opportunity to help people improve their performance as well as recognizing and rewarding superior performance? But the problem ran much deeper. Because that was the norm for most of the managers, they were inadvertently telling employees; “Your effort doesn’t count. And, there are no expectations or consequences for your actions. ”

Not surprisingly, years later I discovered that this organization’s culture was “Passive-Defensive”.

Organizational Culture is described as the “consciously held notions shared by members that most directly influence their attitudes and behaviours”. In other words, “what is expected of them in order to fit in and survive in the organization”.[1] A particular Organization’s Culture comes from three sets of Causal Factors – leadership styles, behaviours, and attitudes; Human Resource systems and practices; and organizational structure and job design.

                                      Click here to see a diagram about How Culture Works

In reality though, everything is driven by the organization’s leaders (past and present). In my earlier mentioned organization, the HR systems were fine. The leaders simply chose to ignore them – replacing them with a bureaucratic process that avoided telling people the truth, not rocking the boat, and trying not to upset anyone.

Non-selling jobs in that same organization were designed to be small, simplistic, and repetitive. It is important to note however, that subcultures can exist within an organization, and these are also driven by leaders. I saw another department manager reward two of her two best employees by expanding their job, giving them more responsibilities and greater challenges. In doing so, she moved the subculture for her group from being Passive/Defensive to a Constructive one.

Leadership is Key

Leadership skills and qualities are essential to building a constructive culture. Effective leadership, balanced between task and interpersonal facilitation, leads to a more constructive culture and higher motivation, coordination across the organization, and better quality and adaptability.


Research shows that Improving Leadership Skills leads to a more constructive culture and a 33% average improvement in performance.[2] Because leaders have access to all aspects of the organization Leaders have a major role in establishing and developing their organization’s culture – from their attitudes, values, and behaviours to the way they use the company’s HR systems, to how they structure people’s jobs. A good leader can even make the organization appear “flatter” by instilling a sense of ownership among the employees.

The bottom line is that human beings are wired to think and act similarly as people they spend a lot of time with. That means that an organizational culture will develop and evolve on its own. If it is not driven by the management team, chances are the resulting culture will not be a healthy one.

Five Key Strategies that any leader can start using today to improve the culture of their organizations.

1. Develop a Constructive attitude or style of thinking. It all starts here. Many years ago, Douglas MacGregor discovered that great leaders all have the same basic assumptions about the people who work for them: they are smart and have good ideas, they care about the organization, and they trust them.

2. Train and develop on the job. Catch people doing something right. Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson identified that one of the key leadership practices was to actively catch people doing something right and then praise them for it. Regularly provide on the job feedback, and when you do need to correct behaviour, make sure to aim for a ratio of 3:1 of compliments to corrections.

3. Encourage and enable your people to take moderate risks. Taking a risk means that sometimes it doesn’t work out. If you punish people’s mistakes, they will stop taking any risks. Help them set S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and have a Time frame) which provide people with a clear set of expectations – and thus establish a consistent, Constructive culture.

4. Involve people in creative problem-solving. Encourage people to “think outside the box” and be innovative whenever possible. Constantly strive to “do it better”. Involve people in decisions that affect them. This simple teambuilding tactic works. Just make sure to balance the amount of time spent teambuilding to match the significance of the decision.

5. Look for ways to expand people’s jobs where possible. Making jobs more challenging, providing greater responsibility, and giving qualified people more decision-making opportunities will encourage more employees to think and act Constructively.

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[1] Human Synergistics OCI Interpretation & Development Guide, 2009, pg. 2.

[2] Why Culture & Leadership Matter Proving the People–Performance Connection, McCarthy, 2014

About the Author

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Allan Stewart

Allan Stewart has been the president of Human Synergistics Canada since 1996. His unique background combines a successful general management career with extensive workshop training experience and a varied academic career. Allan has conducted training programs for organizations in retail, finance, mining, manufacturing, energy, athletics, education, health care and various sectors of the government. He was a senior executive with Sears Canada Inc. and has been a professor at McMaster University and Sheridan College. He received his B.Com. from Queen’s University and his M.B.A. from Wilfrid Laurier University. Allan has over 30 years experience in developing and conducting training workshops. His past clients have included some of the largest and most successful organizations in Canada. He has trained executives, first-line supervisors, trainers, sales-people and line workers. He has been an instructor with the Executive Development Programs at McMaster, York Universities and the Ontario Police College. He has been a key-note speaker on television and at a number of professional conferences. He is considered a leading expert on organizational culture and development. Allan’s dynamic training style and practical approach make him a popular workshop facilitator who has helped people throughout Canada and internationally. He has written articles and workbooks on a variety of subjects, including culture, leadership, stress management, change leadership, entrepreneurship and selling. As well, Allan Stewart is a skilled consultant, interacting with individuals, teams and companies.  As a volunteer, Allan has conducted leadership skills workshops for youth in Canada's native communities and in third world countries. He has lead several charitable organizations, coached minor sports for over 20 years, counseled elite athletes, and developed and lead young entrepreneurs' programs.