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Why organisational culture is crucial to effective leadership and transition?

17 Nov 2021

Following a recent leadership placement, we, here at MWA, began thinking about the impact of leadership and transition. In particular, how this complex transitional period develops for a person who is entering a company in a position of leadership, a role required to direct employees and steer development; yet, as a novice employee, how can one align this disparity to resolve any potential mishaps in the transition?

From our research, it appears that understanding the culture of the organisation you are entering is imperative. However, this vital factor is not always well understood. In light of this, we have reviewed relevant literature and summarised a supportive guide for anybody looking to seamlessly navigate a leadership career transition.

As a leader, you must not only align yourself within a new company and role (with the abundant challenges this alone presents) but, you are also required to be an immediate source of direction. Successfully, leading those whom you have just met within a novel environment requires a complex inter-woven set of skills, abilities and knowledge. Ideally, this is to be accomplished within a few months, if you are to hit the ground running. A task not to be underestimated then.

A key step in your transition to a successful leader is to learn about the organisational culture you are walking into. A frequently misunderstood and heavily debated topic, organisational culture is often overlooked by leaders. Initial focus is placed upon the numbers and statistics, global standing or annual revenue of a company. And whilst knowing these facts is important, it is predominantly the people and interpersonal interactions that determine a company’s success and standing. Essentially, its culture.

Organisational culture has many varying definitions across the literature but most tend to lead back to the expert authority on the matter, Edgar Schein. Schein essentially defines organizational culture as the assumptions people hold that shape their values, which subsequently effect behaviour. Importantly, he also believed that the main purpose of a leader is to effectively manage and navigate cultural balance, knowing when and how to adjust, evolve or overhaul it.

Additionally, organisational culture is regarded as one of the most influential factors in achieving successful workplace performance (Paais & Pattiruhu, 2020). Fortune magazine’s annual ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ is based upon worker’s anonymous reports of their workplace culture (Warrick, 2017). So, undoubtedly, understanding organisational culture is a top priority. Yet, and adding another layer to an already complex matter, there is often overwhelming and sometimes confusing advice surrounding culture and leadership. Herein, the rest of this article aims to simplify how you can identify and understand the culture you are to lead in.

How you choose to discover the current culture is subjective. Predominantly, there is observation – observing your colleagues, their behaviour, approaches and norms will provide you with a wealth of knowledge. You may also have access to company documents or, you could choose to informally interview people, have discussions or send out questionnaires. Regardless, your focus should be upon the following principles, which will guide you in successfully understanding an organisation’s culture.

Gain context

Knowing context is key. As a leader you must discover the histories behind the groups of people you are working with, as well as the company’s evolution, growth or decline. Considering the inter-connected and global world we live in, it is also important to establish cultural influences ahead of you. Imperative if you are moving countries yet central to any wonderfully diverse company.

Exploring a company’s historical journey, it’s challenges, successes and current standing will help set the scene for understanding why the organisational culture is the way it is.

Identify company-defining visible factors

These are the clear work-defining factors. They may be things like dress code, working styles, office design – all of which significantly affect the culture of a workplace. Are you entering a company where people work in solitary offices and seldom interact or, is it an open community space where interactions are plenty? Knowing these things will add further detail to your picture of cultural context.

Define the invisible factors – the values

Once you begin discovering the overt factors, you will naturally begin making assumptions about a company’s values. Take the office layout as an example. If the company boasts open-planned offices with plenty of opportunities for interacting, one could understandably infer that the company highly values communication and interactions. However, this does not mean that the company with unitary, individual offices is against such values. There could be cultural influences at play or simply environmental ones.

Consequently, when exploring a companies values, it is a good idea to begin your discussions with people or look into company publications. A company’s values are imperative. Values we hold effect behaviour and pertinently, how we work. Begin to build your understanding of these values and you will likely create a blueprint for interactions and unspoken guidelines within your new company.

Know the cultural hierarchy and its people

People define culture – both consciously and subconsciously. So it is imperative you look carefully at the people within your team and company. Identify existing relationships, influential figures and those who present potential stumbling blocks to a successful community. Given how complex people and behaviour is, the next article is dedicated to exclusively understanding this important transitional step.

Assess cultural effectiveness and proceed

By now, you will have established a historic, environmental and cultural context to the workplace. You will have identified factors, rules and habits, as well as defining the all-important values. You should have a vivid picture of the organisational culture in which you find yourself.

Now, is the time to assess whether the culture is effective. You have the information along with the unique benefit of standing on the edges of the company looking inwards. Identifying cultural successes and areas for development will ensure that you are in a strong position. A position where you are beginning to define the culture under your leadership.   

References

Paais & J.R. Pattiruhu (2020) – Effect of Motivation, Leadership, and Organizational Culture on Satisfaction and Employee Performance. https://www.koreascience.or.kr/article/JAKO202026061031735.pdf

D.D. Warick (2017) – What leaders need to know about organizational culture. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0007681317300113

Shein cited by MSG https://www.managementstudyguide.com/edgar-schein-model.htm