5 Questions on Creating an Organizational Culture

I recently sat down with Todd Adkins and Barnabas Piper to discuss leadership and reading for the “Five Questions Leadership Podcast.” You should check out the podcast, which has skyrocketed on iTunes, for some great content. Here are the five questions we discussed about organizational culture, with a few notes I jotted down after each question.

  1. What is an organizational culture? Does every organization have a culture?

Every organization has a culture; some are healthy and some are unhealthy. Culture is ultimately about the values that undergird all the actions and behavior. The culture in an organization or ministry is the shared values that drive how work or ministry is done.

Some have equated organizational culture with personality. In the 1920s, Alfred Adler proposed that people with healthy personalities enjoy congruence between how they perceive themselves, how they want to be perceived, and how others perceive them. We have all seen folks who think they are kind and compassionate, yet everyone else thinks they are jerks. That is clearly an unhealthy person with a warped view. Organizations are the same way. In a healthy culture, there is alignment between what is said to be of supreme value and what actually is.

  1. What are the consequences for not actively cultivating a culture in your org?

If you don’t cultivate the culture, you are ignoring the environment that the people you serve alongside must live in, and of course, this greatly and adversely impacts those you serve. Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He wasn’t diminishing the importance of strategy, but he was speaking to the strength of culture and the impact the culture has on everything.

  1. What is the starting point for a leader to create culture?

You first want to assess and understand the culture you have. Find out what the actual values in the culture are. It is unwise simply to bring a list of “aspirational” values and attempt to reverse engineer them into the culture. Find what values are affirmable and affirm those, celebrate those, and lift those values up. Don’t celebrate the unhealthy values, but celebrate the healthy ones.

Your culture, your emphasis on certain values, is what makes your organization unique, so choose the right ones to call out and celebrate. You can bring new values into a culture, but if you are not lifting up actual values, you are not really leading where you are. You are leading some place else, some other group of people you have imagined in your head. When I consult with Auxano, for example, we encourage leaders to have twice as many actual values as aspirational values.

  1. What are culture killers that need to be abolished?

When a violation of a shared value is continually ignored, the culture in an organization deteriorates. Over time, it is clear that the value hanging on the wall is just empty words with no expectation for the value to actually be lived out.

  1. How do you hire and fire in order to shape a culture?

On hiring: Hire people who already fit the values of your organization, who don’t have to become someone they are not to join.

On firing: In a strong culture, people who don’t share the values of the culture become increasingly uncomfortable. This happens in both healthy and unhealthy cultures. So ideally you have a healthy culture, and people whose values don’t fully match the organizational values opt out on their own. They do so not because they are bad or horrible people but because there isn’t value alignment. There is a culture for them somewhere else.