In recent years, organizational culture has been widely discussed and studied by both academics and business experts. Through our experience working with leaders across industries and continents, we have observed a gap between scholarly theory and practical application. In exploring this gap, we hypothesized that practitioners (both line and staff who play a role in shaping organizational culture) need to approach this work with intention, and give careful consideration to three factors: leadership, communication, and reinforcement. To test this theory, we solicited input from business professionals about how they have seen culture shaped, not just in their current role, but across their professional careers.
Our research methodology began with a comprehensive literature review on culture development. With this context, we crafted a survey focused on the leadership, communication, and reinforcement aspects of shaping culture. The survey included five Likert-based agreement scale, eight ordinal ranking, four categorical selection, four open-ended, and four categorical demographic questions. Responses were collected over a four week period and the data was then analyzed inductively. In total, we heard from nearly 200 participants including leaders at every level, from every functional area, across multiple industries and multiple continents. While participants spanned a wide spectrum of experiences, findings suggest common core components that cut across all the demographics represented in the study.
Scholarly definitions and personal experience of organizational culture run a spectrum of interpretations. We have found from our experience that culture is built over time and is a social energy that can move people to act. This definition underlies the development and analysis of this study.
According to the results of Shaping Organizational Culture: A Cross- Functional Study on Real-World Practice (March/April 2005), culture is shaped primarily through four means: leadership, vision, values, and communication. In subsequent questioning, a fifth component, reinforcement, also scored significantly as a key component in how culture takes hold in an organization. With 96% agreement, participants in this study confirmed the importance of being intentional about shaping culture.
About leadership, participants noted that, after vision, the most important characteristics a leader must have to effectively shape a company’s culture are respect, trustworthiness, and communication skills. Additionally, our analysis raised an interesting question about what it means to lead organizational culture. Participants clearly expressed their desire to see culture initiatives directed, communicated, and most of all, modeled, from the senior most executives in the organizations. However, it is not clear who works behind the scenes as the organization development expert and lead architect for the change. We propose, in many cases, that Human Resources may be the best fit for this role.
Regardless of who leads the change, the study clearly shows that professionals throughout the organization need to take responsibility for bringing the culture to life. Eighty-eight percent of the participants agreed that they have a role in shaping culture, and across all levels and functions, participants thought internal employees could do more.
In order to internalize this new way of operating, leaders at all levels need to reinforce behavior that supports the desired culture through personal, direct methods: public recognition, formal and informal recognition from a manager, and professional development opportunities. Our findings suggest that traditional awards programs are highly overrated.
Finally, our findings validated what many already experience intuitively, that the most effective communication mechanisms in culture initiatives are face-to-face, real-time interactions: organization and department meetings, one-on-one communications, and informal networks. These forms of communication are essential to creating relationships.