Managers often view culture as ‘that fluffy thing that HR does’. Truth be told, culture is the most powerful leadership tool for managers who want to achieve strong outcomes.
Culture revolves around people and yet is neither soft nor a question only for the HR team. On the contrary, managers who harness culture to lead their teams will secure better outcomes than those who rely on the rulebook.
Every day, HR teams battle to encourage managers to value and practice effective leadership. One way to reframe this challenge is to talk about culture as a leadership tool, an asset that makes the job of management easier and which also leads to better employee and work outcomes.
Role of ‘the organisation’
A business, charity, or government typically has an overarching mission or strategy, whether that’s to sell chocolate biscuits, or clothe women in style, or rescue children from poverty, or administer 96,000 square miles of territory off the coast of Europe.
Cultural control hinges on shared values, which describe what matters most if the organisation is to achieve its ambitions.
No one person can achieve such ambitions at a scale that fits with the society we have created. The business, charity, or government, therefore, relies on its ‘organisation’, a collection of individuals and other resources such as capital, technology and process, to make real its mission or strategy.
The purpose of such an organisation is, first, to unite people of diverse experience and skills, and, second, to equip them to deliver agreed ambitions in a way that satisfies as many needs as possible.
To secure such co-operation is also the ultimate role of the chief executive, senior managers, and supervisors at all levels.
Three ways to secure co-operation
Co-operation is easier said than done. Employees develop skills in various disciplines: research and development, technology, manufacturing, sales and marketing, compliance and legal, or HR.
Individuals in these teams have goals that overlap only partially with those of other colleagues, hence the regular complaints like, ‘why does compliance always slow things down?’
Managers (broadly defined) have to align the activities of diverse functional specialists with the agreed purpose, mission, or strategy. We shy away from the word, but in essence managers require a means of ‘control’, that is, a reliable way to secure meaningful co-operation.
While many supervisors insist that employees are motivated primarily by money, this is rarely true. As early as 1986, Kovach discovered that ‘interesting work’ ranked first in employees’ motivations, whereas ‘good wages’ came fifth.
In practice, co-operation is secured through a mixture of three control mechanisms: economic, bureaucratic, and cultural.
How bureaucracy works
Anyone familiar with modern organisations recognises a bureaucracy. People at the top, those in power, set out rules that explain how colleagues are to behave and what outputs are required from their work.
Since rules cannot cover all situations, a bureaucracy also needs people – ‘managers’ – with authority to make judgments about exceptions.
The power of culture is that a person’s values are internal to himself or herself: individual purpose is broadly aligned with that of the employer so autonomy is preserved.
In practice what happens? Managers monitor individuals, evaluate their actions and results, and assess these against the rulebook. The boss steps in and makes a decision whenever the rules do not fully cover a situation. Rewards and penalties follow.
Costs of bureaucracy
Under a bureaucracy, individuals are, and feel, watched. This surveillance is expensive in terms of management time and, by extension, salaries.
Employees also are, and feel, controlled, to ensure they act within the rules. Most people prefer autonomy so, even when they comply, they may work without enthusiasm. The psychological contract fails: people become disconnected from the employer, its beneficiaries, and its aims.
Managers typically respond to any performance or engagement shortfalls with closer supervision, which of course compounds these problems.
How cultures encourages co-operation
Corporate culture is similarly a tool to align individuals’ work with agreed purpose. Cultural control hinges on shared values, which describe what matters most if the organisation is to achieve its ambitions.
Unlike the rules of a bureaucracy, values dictate overall direction and do not need to be specified in restrictive detail.
Culture allows managers to structure outcomes and guide people in ways that lend themselves to autonomy, imagination, and flexibility.
Values also set out the manner in which work is to be done. When people hold the same values, they more effortlessly agree on, and commit to, appropriate behaviours, outcomes, and standards. Values-led workplaces are typically easier for their members.
Values are (socially) binding, while being at the same time less restrictive than rules. Members intuitively police themselves, and each other, based on what they believe to be right. Management overheads are reduced because the system regulates itself.
Culture versus bureaucracy
The power of culture is that a person’s values are internal to himself or herself: individual purpose is broadly aligned with that of the employer so autonomy is preserved. Rules, on the other hand, are imposed from outside, usually from above.
Bureaucracies rely on the ability of a few managers to predict intelligently what will serve people and the strategy best. In a fast-moving world, outdated rules bind teams to ways that have outlived their usefulness.
Further, in our complex society, it is hard to describe what outcomes are required: businesses, charities, and governments all need people who can feel their way toward fresh and creative solutions. Management diktat is an unhealthy straitjacket.
Culture, an imperative for all managers
Economic control is a walk in the park for managers: pay team members for outcomes specified in advance. Today, however, most roles call for more nuance and ‘market’ prices are hard to set.
In a bureaucracy, the rulebook similarly is a reliable crutch that makes the manager’s job easier. The problem is that work is complex and does not yield to the simplification that rules-based systems demand. People are complex, too.
To view culture as a leadership asset – and thus a way to generate business, customer, and organisational value – represents for many managers a shift in thinking.
Culture allows managers to structure outcomes and guide people in ways that lend themselves to autonomy, imagination, and flexibility. In a complex world, any manager who aims to inspire his or her people to deliver strong outcomes must be fluent in cultural control.
Managers who choose not to capitalise on the power of culture will fall behind; so will their teams, and so will the results they achieve.
HR: A liberating narrative
To view culture as a leadership asset – and thus a way to generate business, customer, and organisational value – represents for many managers a shift in thinking. Three observations help HR teams to champion this liberating narrative:
- Bureaucratic rules are easy to set, yet the necessary surveillance and follow-up have a detrimental effect on the experiences of both team members and managers;
- Leadership through culture eases the burden of work and management: team members are empowered to take responsibility for what they do, so performance flourishes;
- Change is never-ending: leadership through culture brings team cohesion and consistency of direction, without binding people to unhelpful methods or outcomes.
With these arguments, HR can push forward a model of leadership that puts culture at its heart.