Part 6 – Organizational Culture
In this final installment, the discussion turns to organizational culture and toxicity. The issue is often circular because one problem feeds the next, which feeds the first. Similarly, the correction is found at both the beginning and the end. What follows is merely a demonstration of this circle, some of the overlap, the seemingly inevitable consequence, and a potential solution.
In almost any setting, culture is best when it is aligned throughout an organization and when participants work together to achieve a shared vision. The vision of what the organization wants to be must come first. Without an appropriate vision, the organization’s culture is likely doomed.
Organizational culture is a unique set of beliefs, values, and norms that help define the organization and directly or indirectly impact organizational decisions via the heuristic mechanisms that influence organizational participants (Ng & Ng, 2014). Each of these components must align with the vision. Some researchers suggest that good leadership is critical in developing healthy work cultures (Ardichvili et al., 2016). In part, this is true. The hope is that leaders will help the organization overcome obstacles that impede growth by keeping members vision-focused.
A leader’s ability to impact culture is often impeded by the culture itself.
Unfortunately, many organizations suffer from systemic toxicity, which hinders positive and effective change. Via cause and effect, toxicity often leads to performance issues and unnecessary turnover, which not only negatively impacts the bottom line but also negatively impacts a leader’s ability to affect change. The warning is that a leader can only do so much when organizational toxicity takes hold and when the vision is not easy to chase.
Destroying or altering an ineffective or toxic culture is sometimes hard to accomplish. Often, the difficulty derives from key individuals (such as managers or leaders) being unwilling to change or listen to others about the need for change or due to their resistance to align with the greater vision or because the vision is simply absent or weak. Furthermore, sometimes organizational toxicity is merely the result of not understanding that toxicity exists in the first place or not understanding what is causing it. Regardless of the reason, it is essential to understand that when change initiatives begin (new direction), but toxic organizational norms and processes are not changed to align with the new direction (vision), the old culture will continue to dominate (Kotter, 2012).
Leaders can help the organization make the necessary change, but they are not always the agents of change that organizations hope they will be. Sometimes, leaders are victims of the cultures they lead. However, this is often the result of rigidity.
In her book Bad Leadership, Barbera Kellerman lists rigidity among the many negatives attributed to undesirable leadership (2004). Kellerman explains that regardless of competence, it is never good to be inflexible or unwilling to adapt to new ideas or changing times (2004). While this idea is accurate for individual leaders, the same is true for organizational cultures.
Rigidity in organizational culture often occurs when departments are competitive and siloed (Mizne, 2019). However, rigidly holding onto outdated organizational designs and tactics merely sets the stage for systemic confusion and resolution hindrances. Of course, rigidity can present itself in other subtle ways. For example, toxic organizations are known to shift blame to employees for organizational problems while rigidly holding on to the ideas and practices that created the problems in the first place.
An example of the preceding might be found in blaming an employee for a project failure while ignoring adverse organizational norms such as limiting the budget for the necessary tools to complete the project effectively. In such cases, good leaders then become victims as they are often unjustly blamed for adverse outcomes, despite not being overtly responsible for the outcomes seen (Hino & Aoki, 2013). While just an example, such situations contribute significantly to an employee’s dislike of the job, which contributes to other overt, hidden, and oftentimes, systemic problems.
When it comes to organizational issues, organizations must decide whether they prefer having accuracy and efficiency or having someone to blame. It would seem like a simple decision despite many organizations choosing the latter. However, organizations must understand that accuracy is an essential component of organizational success (Invernizzi & Romenti, 2011). This is to suggest that an organization willing to lie to itself about the issues they face will rarely find the needed solutions to its problems. As a result, the success they seek remains absent. Thankfully, encouraging integrity-driven communication can help if the organization is willing to embrace it as part of its vision and culture.
Similar to having role clarity, attention to detail and accuracy matter during communication because the quality of the communication regarding accurate information ultimately defines an organization’s success (Hunjet et al., 2017). Unfortunately, the sharing of accurate information becomes a problem when an organizational culture of fear encourages lies that hinder the discovery and resolution of organizational issues. If such fear exists, then organizational leaders must understand that such fear often results from some level of organizational toxicity. Again, this toxicity often presents itself in subtle and complex ways. One example might be found by exploring the complexity of organizational integrity.
It should come as no surprise to discover that organizational integrity leads to improved perceptions, a higher degree of worker loyalty, and improved business performance. At the same time, dishonest work cultures result in less loyalty and organizational sabotage for worker gain (Ernst & Young Global Limited, 2018). Organizational leaders choose which culture they end up with based on what they value, encourage, or demand. However, sometimes organizations are shocked to discover that they are direct contributors to the lack of integrity that they despise. To understand this, one must understand organizational fear.
A culture of fear often derives from an organizational desire to have control and compliance. In such cultures, often, measurements and daily goals are the emphases. However, the result is usually far from desired. Fostering a culture of fear results in employees guarding themselves, looking out for “number one,” feeling the need to lie, and not contributing beyond their job description (Schneider, 2019). The key is in the contrast.
If an organization desires openness, teamwork, integrity, performance, and working beyond the job description, a culture of confidence, discovery, and collaboration is necessary.
A recent survey by SimplyHired, an employment website based in California, found that lies are a constant in many organizations (2019). While this likely does not come as a surprise, learning who the biggest offenders are just might. Alarmingly, the survey found that managers lie more than lower-level employees and that the more someone did not like their job, the more likely they were to tell a lie.
In a unique and somewhat paradoxical twist, many organizations have said that they feel it is the individual worker’s responsibility to ensure integrity (Ernst & Young Global Limited, 2018). Echoing the previous point, the blame for that lack of integrity is often misplaced because while organizational leaders tend to point to employee character traits and blame workers for being unethical, a 15-year longitudinal study of over 200 organizations found that it is the organizational issues and pressures that influence workers to distort or withhold the truth (Carucci, 2019). To clarify this unique situation, the research suggests that while the lower-level employee is often blamed, the lies and contortions tend to come from the managers and that such lies are often the result of organizational issues and pressures that make managers dislike their job.
Organizational leaders must understand that the issue is cause and effect and can have profound ramifications. Consider the idea that organizational decisions are often based on the information provided by managers. Therefore, if the information provided to leaders is laced with lies that result from organizational toxicity, organizational performance, and decisions will likely be negatively impacted. The circle usually continues because, in an effort to correct the issue, many organizations default to more controls and compliance measures, which result in more pressure, lies, performance issues, and so on.
Lies are a problem, but the reason for such deception is logical and straightforward. The reason also takes us back to a previous point. Root Inc., a management consulting firm, says that they often see employees lying during organizational change due specifically to the fear of what telling the truth might mean for the employee’s job (Root Inc., n.d.). An important point when admitting that change is constant and that accurate information is vital to organizational success during times of change. Leaders must then ponder where their employees get the idea that telling the truth might result in a negative outcome. Of course, that source is often a toxic cultural environment that fosters unnecessary pressures and conditions employees to believe that a negative outcome is guaranteed if a negative truth is exposed.
More often than not, leaders and organizations are the victims of the cultures they have demanded. In other words, organizational cultures that punish employees for telling the truth will experience the inevitable result. Of course, lying is a big issue regardless of change. The reasons are numerous, but a bulk of the problem resides in a lack of organizational vision and strategic clarity, unjust accountability systems, poor organizational governance, and weak cross-functional collaboration or even rivalry, but these factors are well within an organization’s control and can be corrected (Carucci, 2019). Again, evaluators must assign blame carefully.
Leadership and Organizational Development Can Help
Imagine an organizational culture where employees are vision-oriented, accuracy and discovery are rewarded, excessive pressures are unnecessary, honesty and integrity are the norms, decisions are sound, and where the investment in development results in both loyalty and improved performance. This idea does not have to be a dream. Cultures can change.
However, such change will not be found in maintaining the status quo of development avoidance, fear, and information suppression. Instead, logic dictates that for a growth-minded and vision-oriented culture to exist, employees need an environment where roles are clear, development is both valued and pursued, and where workers feel that they can speak up, push back, admit mistakes, ask for help and training, and ask questions without fearing the aftermath of having done so. Moreover, everyone from the top to the bottom of the organization must have the opportunity to converse, dispute, and embrace its strategic objectives without fear (Carucci, 2019). Of course, this requires the entire organization to be vision-oriented. If nothing else, the organization must examine organizational issues and pressures through an honest lens and ensure that managers are rewarded for telling the truth and exposing organizational issues. Then, the organization must work to correct the problems that are identified.
Understanding the order of how this works provides the necessary insight. A solid and healthy organizational culture is essential to organizational success, but leaders must realize that organizational success derives from organizational performance (Khan & Afzal, 2011). However, exceptional performance is not found by using outdated models that result in unnecessary pressures. Moreover, and as discussed in previous articles, there is a direct relationship between employee development and improved performance and productivity (Hameed & Waheed, 2011; Hayward, 2011). Such development must be aligned with the organization’s vision, and that vision must focus on accuracy and problem resolution.
Of course, any development effort would be useless if the root of the issues resides in a dismissive or resistant organization’s culture. Sadly, that seems to be the case for many organizations. For example, a 2017 Gallup report regarding the state of the American workplace demonstrates that only 30% of U.S. employees felt that someone at work encourages their development (Gallup, 2017). Furthermore, and as shown in Part One of this series, fewer organizations make the investment to correct that.
If organizations want to survive and thrive during economic uncertainty or economic and organizational change, a cultural shift might be necessary. To put it simply:
Organizations benefit greatly from having exceptional employees that know how to do their jobs exceptionally and who desire to put forth their best efforts because they believe in the organization’s vision.
For more on this, leaders might benefit from examining Self-Determination Theory.
Indeed, this is easier said than done because while the vision and desire for a cultural shift come first, the actual culture change comes last (Kotter, 2012). However, as demonstrated, the issue is circular, not linear. If organizations desire resiliency, adaptability, and performance, they must first admit their part in the organization’s toxicity, continually hone and refine, reward honesty, and include professional leadership development and education across hierarchies as a part of their overall culture (Khan & Afzal, 2011). Internal or external development helps align the organization with the vision while fostering the integrity-driven communication necessary to achieve it. Such communication allows organizations to both identify and address potentially hidden organizational issues. Organizational toxicity may go on without such efforts, and the desired change or improvement may remain elusive.
To solidify this change in organizational culture, the vision must be emphasized regularly, new approaches must be superior to old approaches, communication must be constant and honest, and the organization may need to terminate those who refuse to let go of the old culture and ways of doing things (Kotter, 2012). Moreover, leadership and organizational development efforts should always comprise those across hierarchies to ensure saturation and cultural resiliency. However, organizations must also understand that while developing resilient leaders individually can contribute to their resilience culture and help navigate disruptive events, resilient leaders do not necessarily create resilient organizations by being resilient themselves (Sonnet, 2016). Instead, organizations must proactively work to be resilient and adaptable as an organization (as a team) and develop a culture that fosters the necessary elements previously discussed.
For clarity, toxic organizations can realize success by shifting priorities to overcome existing toxic organizational norms. Remember that clarity of vision and development go hand in hand. Conversely, managing the status quo will not equate to change or improved organizational performance. Therefore, professional development across the hierarchy is vital for organizations seeking a cultural shift towards performance, success, resiliency, and adaptability because, as studies repeatedly demonstrate, such development often results in engaged and productive employees.
The Summary and Actionable Takeaways from this Series
Many organizations struggle to develop and keep influential leaders (Khan & Afzal, 2011; Sonnet, 2016). There is considerable evidence suggesting a positive cost-benefit of utilizing professional leadership development (Ghose, 2017; Hameed & Waheed, 2011; Hayward, 2011; Shuck & Herd, 2012). However, organizations must understand that the leadership industry is unregulated, not all leadership development programs are the same, the practitioner chosen matters, and the proper measurement of development efforts requires time and intuition (Berman, 2018; Morse, 2013; Sheryn, 2020).
Leadership development can fail, and the blame for such failures often unjustly falls on employees or the development program itself. However, the novice factor and a toxic organizational culture could be stronger candidates for that charge (Kotter, 2012). Misplacing responsibility for organizational or leadership development failures puts organizations at risk of losing talent. The lack of professional leadership development and the subsequent loss of talent may lead to leadership gaps that result in unnecessary and preventable competitive decline (Paese et al., 2002).
Counterfactual blame impedes impactful correction, effective change, and organizational advancement. Organizational decision-makers must understand that leadership development will likely fail if organizational understanding and goals do not align with the chosen development program (Hanson, 2013; Kjellström et al., 2020). The novice factor helps to illuminate the importance of employing or contracting with professional leadership development practitioners specifically trained and educated in the discipline of leadership. Doing so may reduce the opportunity for failure while providing a more significant result or advantage.
In closing, having trained, engaged, productive, and advanceable employees impact organizational effectiveness, adaptability, and longevity. Therefore, organizations should consider the repercussions of not investing in the professional development of their employees and what that decision will mean for the quality of the existing talent pool and the organization’s competitive position. If the development program is relevant and individualized, a professional leadership development program can improve leadership skills across organizational hierarchies and could be the most significant differentiator between successful and unsuccessful organizations (Cardno & Youngs, 2013; Ghose, 2017; McCauley-Smith et al., 2013; Velayudhan et al., 2011).
The Articles in this Series:
- Part 1: Organizational Development Needs
- Part 2: The Reality of Leadership Development
- Part 3: Leadership Development Evaluations and Limitations
- Part 4: The Right Trainer & The Novice Factor
- Part 5: Management vs. Leadership
- Part 6: Organizational Culture
Use of this work is permitted with proper citation.
Acknowledgments & Actions
- – Thank you for examining this research. Be sure to share if you find value in it, and be sure to check out the other parts of this series.
- – This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
- – Continue reading! Check out some of my articles on this website.
Ardichvili, A., Natt och Dag, K., & Manderscheid, S. (2016). Leadership development: Current and emerging models and practices. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 18(3), 275–285. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422316645506
Berman, G. J. (2018). Measuring behavior across scales. BMC Biology, 16, 23. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-018-0494-7
Cardno, C., & Youngs, H. (2013). Leadership development for experienced New Zealand principals: Perceptions of effectiveness. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(3), 256–271. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143212474808
Carucci, R. (2019, February). 4 ways lying becomes the norm at a company. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/02/4-ways-lying-becomes-the-norm-at-a-company
Ernst & Young Global Limited. (2018). The Global Fraud Survey: How compliance can be more effective. https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_gl/topics/assurance/assurance-pdfs/ey-the-poll-Global-fraud-survey.pdf?download
Gallup. (2017). State of the american workplace report. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
Ghose, D. (2017). Why leadership development efforts fail. NHRD Network Journal, 10(4), 85–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0974173920170416
Hameed, A., & Waheed, A. (2011). Employee development and its affect on employee performance A conceptual framework. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(13), 224–229. https://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol._2_No._13_Special_Issue_July_2011/26.pdf
Hanson, B. (2013). The leadership development interface: Aligning leaders and organizations toward more effective leadership learning. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15(1), 106–120. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422312465853
Hayward, S. (2011). Connecting leadership development to bottom line benefits. Strategic HR Review, 10(1), 28–34. https://doi.org/10.1108/14754391111091788
Hino, K., & Aoki, H. (2013). Romance of leadership and evaluation of organizational failure. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 34(4), 365–377. https://doi.org/10.1108/LODJ-08-2011-0079
Hunjet, A., Susec, M., & Kozina, G. (2017, April 27–28). Business communication in an organisation [Conference session]. Varazdin Development and Entrepreneurship Agency (VADEA)., Varazdin. https://search.proquest.com/conference-papers-proceedings/business-communication-organisation/docview/2070400613/se-2?accountid=10378
Invernizzi, E., & Romenti, S. (2011). Strategic communication and decision-making processes toward the communication oriented organisation. Academicus, 3, 12–27. https://doi.org/10.7336/academicus.2011.03.01
Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad Leadership. Harvard Business School Press.
Khan, M. A., & Afzal, H. (2011). High level of education builds up strong relationship between organizational culture and organization performance in Pakistan. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(7), 1387–1400. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2011.561955
Kjellström, S., Stålne, K., & Törnblom, O. (2020). Six ways of understanding leadership development: An exploration of increasing complexity. Leadership, 16(4), 434–460. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020926731
Kotter, J. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.
McCauley-Smith, C., Williams, S., Gillon, A. C., Braganza, A., & Ward, C. (2013). Individual leader to interdependent leadership: A case study in leadership development and tripartite evaluation. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15(1), 83–105. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422312466982
Mizne, D. (2019, July). Just what the h*ck is organizational culture anyway? Talent Management Excellence Essentials. https://search.proquest.com/magazines/just-what-h-ck-is-organizational-culture-anyway/docview/2307195111/se-2?accountid=10378
Morse, B. J. (2013). Measuring the stuff of thought: Psychology and its discontents. Bridgewater Review, 32(2), 4–7. http://vc.bridgew.edu/br_rev/vol32/iss2/4
Ng, J. C. Y., & Ng, K. Y. N. (2014). Culture, organisational culture and organisational climate: An integrative approach. Indian Journal of Commerce and Management Studies, 5(2), 18–26. https://search.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/culture-organisational-climate-integrative/docview/1539798840/se-2?accountid=10378
Paese, M., Smith, A., & Byham, W. (2002). Grow your own leaders: how to identify, develop, and retain leadership talent. Financial Times Prentice Hall. http://ptgmedia.pearsoncmg.com/images/9780130093981/samplepages/013009398x.pdf
Root Inc. (n.d.). Creating fearless engagement. Root Digital Experiences. http://www.rootinc.com/paper/creating-fearless-engagement/
Schneider, M. (2019, October 22). A harvard scientist developed a diagnostic tool to determine your team’s level of psychological safety. Inc.. https://www.inc.com/michael-schneider/a-harvard-scientist-developed-a-diagnostic-tool-to-determine-your-teams-level-of-psychological-safety.html?cid=search
Sheryn, C. (2020, September). Measuring the immeasurable – metrics and measurement for a continuous improvement culture. PA. https://www.paconsulting.com/insights/measuring-the-immeasurable–metrics-and-measurement-for-a-continuous-improvement-culture/
Shuck, B., & Herd, A. M. (2012). Employee engagement and leadership: Exploring the convergence of two frameworks and implications for leadership development in HRD. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2), 156–181. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484312438211
Simplyhired. (2019). Telling White Lies at Work. SimplyHired. https://blog.simplyhired.com/telling-white-lies-at-work/
Sonnet, M. T. (2016). Employee behaviors, beliefs, and collective resilience: An exploratory study in organizational resilience capacity (10063554) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. https://search.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/employee-behaviors-beliefs-collective-resilience/docview/1777582116/se-2?accountid=10378
Velayudhan, A., Gayatridevi, S., Benedict, J. N., & Devi, N. V. A. (2011). Leadership development intervention: An experimental study. Asia Pacific Business Review, 7(2), 178–188. https://doi.org/10.1177/097324701100700217
This series is based on my study: A Study of the Relationship between Leadership Development and Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement