Culture — like communication and leadership — isn’t a choice. It’s inevitable. So when it comes to organizational culture, the only choice leaders have is what kind of a culture they will foster. 

This is true whether we are talking about one’s home, workplace, parish or in any of the other communities of which we have a role. And its true whether we are the parent or child, CEO or custodian, parish council member or back pew Catholic. You don’t have to be an alpha leader to shape culture. You just have to adopt some principles and consistently live by them. 

The corporate and nonprofit worlds are full of mid-level leaders who have created little oases of nurturing, high performance culture in organizational cesspools. Sometimes their contributions are noticed and extrinsically rewarded. Often, their fidelity to good principles is its own reward. 

Of course, the more positional power we have, generally the more influence we exercise in shaping our cultures. But we have to remember that this leverage works both ways — to the benefit or harm of the organization and its members. 

The abusive or absentee parent, the self-centered or self-indulgent boss, the irresponsible council president or a win-obsessed youth coach all help shape the cultures in which they function. 

I met a man on an airplane some years ago who worked in law enforcement and security. He talked about something he learned while helping a client with large retail chain of stores address problems with shoplifting. It turns out that employees were responsible for most of the theft. But what struck him as most interesting was that employee theft was much higher where store managers were perceived as arrogant, mean and uncaring.

His security firm decided to test this hypothesis and found it true across the board. Thereafter, when theft in a store was found to be abnormally high, the client began to look at what kind of supervision employees were getting. As poor supervisors were replaced, theft went down — sometimes dramatically — and stayed lower. 

The finding doesn’t excuse theft or the people who committed it. But it does point to how leaders inevitably shape culture — often in ways they don’t anticipate. Another research finding that makes that point in a more positive way: companies that are more generous in donating to worthy causes experience less theft and dishonesty among their employees.

Even if culture isn’t always built according to a plan, it doesn’t happen by accident either. It is inexorably built day-by-day as leaders respond to ongoing challenges and unexpected contingencies, marshal human and other resources — and as team members respond to the environment, its challenges and share information and emotions with one another. 

As a general rule, more effective and more satisfying cultures are built if leaders consciously strive to build them according to a plan — and then behave in ways that are consistent with what the culture professes to value. For example:

  • If you want a family culture that is patient and forgiving, you can’t blow your temper when children misbehave.
  • If you want a family culture that fosters good scholarship, you should have plentiful reading material in the home — and children should see you using it often.
  • If you want a work team marked by mutual support and cooperation, you can’t take all — or even very much — of the credit for your team’s success. (It is helpful, however, to take the blame when things go wrong.)
  • If you want hard working people focused more on mission than individual compensation, you can’t surround yourself with all the trappings of material success.

It would seem that church-related organizations would have an advantage in building effective cultures because their missions, visions and values are embodied in the faiths they represent. However, the fact is that the more clearly an organization’s principles are explicated, the more important it becomes that leaders reflect the organization’s belief structure in their behaviors.

If the walk does not match the talk, a de facto culture of cynicism and indifference quickly arises. 

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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