By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

“As above, so below.”

“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In my last post I explained why an effective culture is essential for strategy execution and organizational success. At the end, I claimed that the most important tool to shape, manage and change organizational culture is leadership behavior. In this post I’ll support that claim and alert you to the dangers of leading a culture by example.

What You See Is What You Do

You learn your family culture by observing your parent’s behavior. What you hear them say matters little compared to what you see them do—especially in private and under stress.

From your earliest age you realize that talk is cheap. It is easy to declaim high standards without any real commitment to them. You must have seen plenty of contradictions between adults’ “espoused values” (what they claim one ought to do) and their “values-in-action” (what they actually do). To survive in such environment you probably developed a healthy skepticism of lofty declarations, at least until you saw them turn into grounded behaviors.

Behavior is expensive; that’s what makes it a credible signal. To behave according to high standards requires hard choices. Such choices constitute a believable commitment. It was the way your parents put their values in action that told you what was really valued in your family. Similarly, it was the way your teachers behaved that told you what were the real norms you had to fulfill to survive and thrive at school.

It is the way your leaders demonstrate their values in action that tells you what’s really valued in your organization and what are the real norms you have to fulfill to survive and thrive there.

What You Do Is What You Get

Unless the leaders of a company exemplify the cultural norms they espouse in daily life and, most importantly, in circumstances that test their mettle, what they say is irrelevant, or worse; it can become a source of cynicism.

As a leader you set the standard by example. The attitudes and behaviors your colleagues can see you enact, “tell” them what you truly believe and cherish much louder than anything you can say. To earn the right to demand they behave according to the norms of an effective culture, you must accept first the obligation to do so yourself. You have to give your colleagues the right to demand you behave according to these norms.

Your leadership behaviors are not just your direct actions. As a leader you also express your values through the choice of formal organizational systems and processes. You have the power to define –or at least significantly influence– how people get recruited, selected and hired for your organization, how they get socialized and trained, how and why they get rewarded and promoted, and how and why they get reprimanded, demoted, or fired.

Each one of these systems and processes exists with your consent, so it communicates to your organization what is important, what is right, and what is just for you. Similarly, every people manager in your organization holds that position with your sanction, so his or her behavior communicates to your organization your true values and beliefs louder than anything you write or say.

Willing And Able

Even with the best intentions, you might fail to enact your standards for lack of consciousness or lack of skill.

Constructive attitudes and behaviors are not just a matter of desire, but of commitment. It takes a conscious effort to stay open in the midst of conflict, for example, or compassionate when disappointed. The ability to be present and mindful when challenged by negative feelings is something that requires training.

Openness and compassion are states of mind, therefore invisible to your others. In order to make them leadership messages for culture-making you have to show them in action.It’s not enough to listen to others. You have to convince them that you are listening in order for them to feel heard. This requires practical skills which you can only develop with training.

You are your most important leadership instrument. To create an effective culture, you must “tune” yourself both mentally and physically to stay true to your standards. If you betray them in the heat of battle you will trigger a reaction that can poison your culture, leaving it in a worse state than its original one.

A Word of Caution

If you want to lead effectively, it is crucial that you exemplify the norms of the culture you want to create. Your employees are hypersensitive to your behavior, and to that of every leader in the organization. They will keenly notice what you spend time on (and what you don’t), what you ask (and what you don’t), who you talk to (and who you don’t). Even “small” gestures such as smiles, frowns and nods will provide your team members with clues about what you value and what you don’t. They will infer from these clues what is expected of them, which of their behaviors will be rewarded and which punished.

Once you commit to turn your organization’s culture as a strategic asset, you and your leadership team will need to review your own behavior frequently. You need to check the consistency of the signals you are sending to the organization to avoid contradictions that create cynicism. You can only do this by empowering and encouraging your employees to challenge you when they experience any gaps between your espoused values and your actions—even though, or especially when, you disagree with them. To lead an effective culture you cannot allow for “undiscussables,”

Your employees will be hyper-vigilant about deviant behaviors from their leaders. So much so, that even if you are perfectly consistent, they might attribute hypocrisy to you. Berkeley professor J. A. Chatman* gives culture leaders a serious warning:

“Ironically, leading through culture can set leaders up to be vulnerable to (…) the ‘hypocrisy attribution dynamic.’ Cultural values are powerful because they inspire people by appealing to their ideals, and they clarify expectations by making salient the consistency between these values and each member’s own behavior. However, just as emphasizing cultural values inherently alerts us to our own behavior, it makes others’ behavior salient too, giving us high standards for judging them as well. We then become particularly attentive to possible violations, especially by leaders, who are highly visible based on their power over our fate at work. When we detect potential inconsistencies between stated values and observed actions, our tendency to judge others harshly kicks in.”

“Leaders who emphasize cultural values should expect employees to interpret those values by adding their own layers of meaning to them. Over time, an event inevitably will occur that puts leaders at risk of being viewed as acting inconsistently with the very values he or she has espoused. Employees are driven by the ‘actor observer bias,’ the human tendency to explain one’s own behavior generously (…) and to explain others’ behavior unsympathetically (…). When leaders behave in ways that appear to violate espoused organizational values, employees conclude that the leader is personally failing to ‘walk the talk.’ In short, organization members perceive hypocrisy and replace their hard-won commitment with performance-threatening cynicism. Worse yet, because such negative interpersonal judgments are inherently threatening, employees say nothing publicly, precluding a fair test of their conclusions and disabling organizational learning from the event. The process cycles as subsequent events are taken to confirm hypocrisy, and eventually a large number of employees may become disillusioned.”

One of the most notorious examples of inconsistency between espoused values and values-in-action is the one of Enron. It is easy to understand why, having been deceived so egregiously by executives in companies such as Enron, people will put any leader under a magnifying glass—sometimes burning even the good ones with the heat of their scrutiny. 

Culture leadership is a high stakes game. The Conscious Business program is designed to provide you with the necessary competences to win it. I hope you go “all in.”  

* “Leading By Leveraging Culture” by J. A. Chatman and S. E. Cha, in the California Management Review, Summer 2003, Vol. 45, No. 4.

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