Servant Leadership – Understanding Culture

Simply stated, organizational culture refers to the values, attitudes, and beliefs shared by a group of people. Culture has a profound effect on an organization and it adds structural stability to the group. It provides employees with a frame of reference that enables them to communicate effectively and to recognize right from wrong within the organizational framework. It is the leader’s assumptions of the right way to do things that gets communicated to the group.

When priorities change at the drop of a hat, a framework for change is critical to the health of the organization. “As behavioral codes and values are embedded deeply in the organization, they are generally a strong guideline for all activities.” Understanding culture can help organizations facilitate a framework for change. The dominant elements that are present in an organization are the driving forces behind its culture. “Culture, like an onion, consists of layers that can be peeled off. The outer layer is what people primarily associate with culture: the visual reality of behavior, clothes, food, language, and so on. The middle layer refers to the norms and values that an organization holds: what is considered right and wrong or good and bad. The deepest or inner layer is the level of unquestioned implicit culture. This layer is the result of human beings organizing to reconcile frequently occurring dilemmas.”

Each of these driving forces can be molded into a framework for change, as long as they are understood. The leaders of the future must understand the driving forces behind the organization’s culture so that they can understand how to promote understanding within the culture. Organizations, like people, respond to different motivators. When technology is the driving force, for example, the need to be on the cutting edge might be a motivator. The military frequently subscribes to this culture.

“It is important that leaders not be so in love with the details of the changes they are launching that they sacrifice the spirit of the outcome that the changes were intended to produce. Leaders who become emotionally wedded to their ‘plans’ sometimes fail to distinguish between incidentals and fundamentals and end up establishing the former at the expense of the latter.” In order to maintain a sustainable advantage, the organizations must change as quickly as their strategies. If change is required to maintain a sustainable advantage, why not design the organization to be constantly and quickly changeable? The value gained by conducting a culture-values audit is that it assists stakeholders in understanding their strengths and potential for change. “Understanding how your organizations is the same as and different from other similar organizations, how its different elements are aligned with one another, and in what ways change might be initiated are all important outcomes…”

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Kenneth Rice

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