• 10 September 2019
  • Sarah Babb
  • 4 min

Difficult but possible: How to change leadership culture

Many companies purport to espouse a leadership culture and values, however, most employees seldom experience an alignment of the two. In other words, the stated leadership values don’t match up to the existing leadership behaviours and organisational culture.

Leadership culture can be compared to jelly: Once set, it’s a fixed shape of translucent matter that can’t be easily moulded. When you try prodding a finger into the side of the jelly, it wobbles back into shape. If you think of your organisation’s leadership as the jelly and each individual employee as a finger, you’ll understand that the culture of leadership, although formed over time by senior executives, is greater than any one individual leader.

What shapes a culture?

The simple answer is that cultures are comprised of identities. Research and personal experience has taught us that each individual has many different identities, which are dependent on the contexts we find ourselves in. People align themselves with different social identities when they join groups or organisations that align with their interests, such as sports teams, religious communities and even places of work. They assert their personal identities, values and preferences with the norms and practices of each when they participate in that particular group.   

In the workplace context, an individual’s identity is constantly changing as that person moves into different roles – from managing themselves as part of a group to managing a team to leading a division or department. Once you become aware of your own shifting identity and how it relates to your leadership as well as the organisational culture at your workplace, you’ll better understand your environment and how you can help change the leadership culture within it.

How do we change leadership culture?

An entrenched leadership culture cannot simply be weeded out or disappear by replacing employees. Instead, it’s important to consider how the characteristics of leadership can be reframed and nurtured to become a norm within the organisational culture of your company.

1. Identifying leadership culture

The first step to change is to clearly understand what already exists. Take a step back and assess the existing leadership culture in your company, how it works and what purpose it serves. Next, think about the type of culture you would like your company to have. Then take positive steps to implement the interactions and processes that form part of your desired leadership culture. By starting to make small, simple changes, these interactions will become the new norm and grow into larger ones.

2. Understand leadership behaviours and systems

In order to implement a positive leadership culture, you’ll need to understand the systems that reinforce different leadership behaviours. Ask yourself:

  • Can the leadership  culture in my workplace change?
  • What will it take to change the culture of leadership in my workplace?
  • Is my team or company equipped to implement these changes?

The answers to these questions will allow you develop a framework that supports change – and help your programme of leadership development. Additionally, as new leaders emerge, they will bring their own agency of leadership, which is why it’s important that you build company interventions and values into your leadership development and coaching programmes.

3. Oversee the process

Many companies have a holistic perspective of leadership culture but are often unable to align and integrate their vision of their organisation’s leadership culture with their current culture. If you are delegating the implementation process of a change in culture – whether to human resources, the C-suite, or your learning and development team – be sure to check in with the leaders involved to ensure the overall message and intent is not lost. Find the stories and interactions that bring about the changes you want and work on those areas. And, most of all, be the type of leader you want to see across your organisation.

To better understand leadership culture in the workplace, enrol in USB-ED’s Development of Leadership and Team Skills course, which will prepare you for the changing environment of leadership in the workplace. For more information on this and other courses, click here.

A version of this article was originally published in ASTD’s newsletter, Talking Talent, in February 2016.

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