A Manager’s Accountability for Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

This is not a simple question. What is company culture? And what is my accountability, as a manager, related to culture?

Some time ago, writing a role description, I added Culture as a Key Result Area. What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area of Company Culture?

Company culture is that unwritten set of rules that governs our required behavior in the work that we do together. It is unwritten in contrast to our written set of rules, policies, procedures. Culture is often more powerful than any policy we may write or attempt to officially enforce. Sometimes, culture even works against our stated policy.

What is the source of culture, where does it start? How is culture visible, how do we see it? How is culture tested? How is culture institutionalized, reinforced and perpetuated? These are the four steps in the Culture Cycle.

1. The source of culture is the way we see the world. It includes our beliefs, bias, our experience, our interpretation of our experience. Culture is the story we carry into our experience that provides the lens, the frame, the tint, the brightness or darkness of that story.

2. Culture, the way we see the world drives our behavior. We cannot see the bias in others. We cannot see their interpretations of the world. We cannot see the story people carry in their minds, but, we can see behavior. Culture drives behavior. Behavior makes culture visible.

3. Behavior, driven by culture, is constantly tested against the reality of consequences. For better or worse, behaviors driven by culture are proven valid, or not. Our culture stands for what we tolerate. This is counter to the notion of the lofty intentions of honesty and integrity. Our culture stands for the behaviors we tolerate related to the lofty intentions.

4. Behaviors that survive, for better or worse, are institutionalized in our rituals and customs. This ranges from the peer lunch on a team member’s first day at work to the hazing in a fraternity house. But, it all starts with the way we see the world.

There is accountability, for a manager, in each of the four steps in the culture cycle.

Beliefs and assumptions. Every manager must be able to verbalize and discuss the beliefs held by the organization. This discussion may be in the form of stories, or observations of specific behaviors that support those beliefs. If the belief is that all team members must return home each day with all their fingers and toes, the manager must be able to tell stories that illustrate safe and unsafe work practices and the consequence of each.

Connected behaviors. Every manager must be able to identify behaviors that support the beliefs of the organization (positive behavior) and behaviors inconsistent with those beliefs (negative behavior). Every manager must be able to verbalize and coach those behaviors, acknowledging positive behavior and intervening negative behavior. If the belief is that every team member must return home each day with all their fingers and toes, the manager must be able to verbalize safe work practices and coach corrective behavior.

Testing against reality. Every manager must be able to reconcile connected behaviors with the consequences of reality. There must be consistency between positive behaviors and negative behaviors with what really happens as a result. If the behavior related to safety is to wear protective gear (safety glasses and gloves), then the manager may not allow unsafe work practices just because it is more convenient. Convenience often wins. We stand for what we tolerate.

Customs and rituals. Every manager must execute in the customs and rituals that support the beliefs of the organization. If it is the ritual to reinforce behaviors related to safety, the manager cannot cancel the morning safety meeting because she is too busy.

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