Here are a few activities that will help leaders guide organizational culture with a skillful hand.
Be Attentive and Assess
Leaders need to be aware of what is happening within their organizations at all levels. They need to have an ear to the ground. They need to notice the details of life around them as it is being lived. They need to ask questions and then listen carefully to the answers.
I am amazed at how oblivious I can be. I get distracted by the vision before me, or by the immediate tasks at hand, and neglect to notice what is happening to the health of my colleagues—or even my own family. Busyness is an enemy of effectiveness, and that is particularly true when it comes to culture shaping.
While it certainly is possible to be attentive on the fly to such areas as relational dynamics, levels of stress, topics of conversation, and the spiritual tone, it often takes time and particular attention to dig into the meaning of what we see happening. Culture is made up of so many parts that assessment requires intentionality.
Plan the Steps
As the reality of what is happening within community culture becomes clearer, it is time for planning the steps we want to take in moving the culture forward. For example, if a culture includes a great deal of built-in, unproductive stress, leadership needs to be intentional about discerning the causes and then be specific in developing plans and strategies for reducing or transforming those elements.
Ignoring the issues will not help them improve. Being unfocused in planning will not help hit the target. We need to make plans and then execute them with care and persistence—evaluating along the way to determine whether we are moving in the right direction.
When it comes to cultural change, planning should always include an awareness of the past as well as an eye toward future goals. Whenever well-established values and behaviors can be used in moving into new directions, the resistance can be diminished.
One of the main components of healthy organizational culture is honest, transparent communication. Therefore, it should be no surprise that one of the key activities of leaders who want to nourish community culture is that they communicate generously. This means both speaking and listening. The communication we model will likely be imitated.
Larry Smeltzer, in a 1991 study of 43 organizations, discovered that the most commonly cited reason for the failure of a change effort within an organization was the presence of inaccurate and negative rumors, often caused by the leader’s neglecting to provide timely and accurate information.1 However, communication is more than just relaying facts. It also is about communicating values, aspirations, and when necessary, apologies.
One of the most powerful ways of introducing enduring change is to create rituals that illustrate or embody the values and attitudes we seek to nourish. Rituals are patterned, repeated, often symbolic actions that can strengthen relational bonds, teach values, and provide ongoing opportunities to remember and reaffirm who (and whose) we are. Rituals are a form of communication that helps us remember what is important.
An element that should be prominent in any list of practical ways to nourish and shape an organizational culture is prayer. God cares far more about how we function together than we do. God cares about how we treat one another. And God longs for us to be fruitful in our participation in the work of Christ’s kingdom. The conversation about our corporate culture should begin—and continue—with the triune God. It is in dialogue with God and with the guidance from the Holy Spirit that we can grow in this vital leadership task. Prayer, both as an individual and as a community, brings deeper understanding, openness, attentiveness, and sometimes insight beyond our natural abilities to figure these things out.
1Larry R. Smelzer, “An Analysis of Strategies for Announcing Organization-Wide Change,” Group Organization Management, March 1991, vol. 16, no. 1. Abstract seen at http://gom.sagepub.com/content/16/1/5.short (accessed November 8, 2010).
Steve Hayner serves as president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.