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‘Culture’ as a Leadership Verb

Posted by Laura Wilson on Aug 12, 2015 12:00:00 PM

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pearlsIn the late 1800s, the son of a Japanese noodle maker patented a process for culturing pearls by seeding oysters. Though he was not the first to patent pearl culturing, he was the first to master a technique that produced consistently round results. Today, few would recognize the names of the original patent holders, but the name of Kokichi Mikimoto lives on through his namesake pearls. Less well known is that all Mikimoto pearls are cultured, not natural.

These prized pearls, which result from conscious effort, serve as a metaphor for another sort of culturing, that which takes place every day in workplaces. Each business organization has its own culture, whether recognizable or not, and that culture is formed either by default or by design. The thoughtful leader will ensure that workplace culture develops by choice. Too much is at stake—employee morale, company productivity and client satisfaction—to let it happen by chance. Especially for trade associations, which exist to serve members, cultural strength can make or break the association’s success.

The first step in shaping workplace culture is to evaluate its current state—not an easy task, due to its elusive nature. What exactly is workplace culture? Theories abound, with paraphrased definitions ranging from “the sum total of behaviors, actions and attitudes” to “collective mindset” to “the way things are done when no one is looking.” Overlooked, though, is that the word “culture” is both a noun and a verb. Let us then define corporate culture in two ways:

  • As a noun, “culture” is a set of unified beliefs put into action.
  • As a verb, “culture” is intentionally growing a set of beliefs that unify and motivate.

Culture as a Noun
To clarify, even if a culture within a workplace is undefined, nonetheless that organization does have a culture. Depending on the level of unity of beliefs among employees, the workplace culture will be either healthy or unhealthy. If there is a lack of unified beliefs, that disunity itself becomes the workplace culture…and it is not a desirable one. At best, a disjointed workplace will be stymied with redundancy and inefficiency; at worst, it can be plagued with rivalry and even sabotage.


Fortunately, worst-case scenarios are the exception, not the rule. However, since effective leaders continually seek to improve their organizations, it can only help to periodically assess workplace culture. Because corporate culture is defined by how beliefs are put into action, it is important to gauge how the company’s mission, vision and values statements correlate with what employees are actually doing. In a healthy corporate culture, employees are unified in purpose (mission), collectively see where the organization is headed (vision) and agree on how best to arrive there (values). In this robust environment, employee actions enhance the organization’s mission, vision and values.

Culture is further revealed in the unspoken. Every workplace has tacit understandings, for instance how to interact with clients and co-workers. When there is unity in those unspoken rules, and when those rules give rise to behaviors that benefit the organization, the culture is healthy.

Culture as a Verb
Just as a cultured pearl is formed by deliberate action, workplace culture needs to result from design, with able leaders guiding it. Though it is possible for a strong work culture to form organicallysuch as when a family-led business brings embedded culture into the workplaceorganizational consultants warn against allowing corporate culture to happen on its own. When leadership fails to consciously shape culture, the workplace will fall into a default culture, often determined by the most forceful personalities present.

Another risk to not consciously shaping culture is that a cluster of cultures might form, with their own leaders, values and directional views. These become “silos” of in-house competition that can strain communications, drain energy and lead to infighting rather than team-building. The result can be rampant office politicking and an undercurrent of discord, undermining the organization’s goals.

Take a hard look at your organization’s workplace culture and ask, “Is there unity of beliefs that align with mission, vision and values? Do employee actions support those beliefs?” Then find ways for your organization to measure these variables, engaging third-party help if needed. For trade associations, member satisfaction surveys can be revealing, as well as candid conversations with staff. In fact, employee engagement is key to changing culture for the better. If only minor tweaks are needed, it may be that simply improving communications will suffice.

It also is imperative for leadership to remain clearly at the helm, especially when a major cultural overhaul is due. Several years ago, the CEO of an Indiana business brought in outside consultation to invigorate the company’s culture. The result was a renewed culture brimming with upbeat messaging, cheerful staff and satisfied customers. In the process, however, a few employees were uncomfortable and chose to exit. Rather than adjust to the dissenters, the CEO remained true to the new culture to allow it to fully form, for ultimate success.

Improving workplace culture takes time and determination, but is well worth the leadership effort, particularly for member-driven trade associations. Those who embrace culture as a leadership verb should keep sights set on mission, vision and values to ensure that cultural change is consistent with overriding goals. To return to the analogy of cultured pearls—while it may not seem “natural” to consciously shape a workplace culture, the result can be a gleaming gem of an organization.

Topics: Leadership, Culture

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