A common conversation I have with many of my senior, executive clients involves their desire to alter elements of their organization’s management culture and their frustration with how difficult they find that challenge.  “Why is this so hard, take so long, and demand so much, they ask?”  The answers lie somewhere in understanding the WHAT of a management culture, WHY they so assiduously resist change, and the requirements for HOW to bring about desired modifications.

WHAT IS A MANAGEMENT CULTURE?  A management culture is ultimately defined by behavior; behavior emulated on a daily basis by a significant majority of an organization’s managers. This behavior covers a wide range of activities — suggesting a set of attitudes and underlying management philosophy — the most significant of which involve: the treatment of subordinates; the allocation of financial resources and promotion/advancement opportunities throughout the organization; the employee behaviors and accomplishments that receive rewards and punishments; and those behaviors that define an organization’s relationship with its clients or customers.

Looking closely at the above behaviors that define a given management culture, it is fairly easy to see whether an organization is creative and innovative, or conservative, cautious, risk averse, and quick to assess blame for anything that goes wrong. One can quickly tell whether the desires of an organization’s customers come first, or as Henry Ford once allegedly told a customer, “You can have any color Ford you want, as long as it’s black.” Moreover, you can readily discern whether an organization’s management team consider themselves partners with those they manage, or a privileged collection of Brahmins who operate by their own rules.

WHY DO MANAGEMENT CULTURES CHANGE SO SLOWLY?  To a large degree, it is a matter of human nature.  Who among us easily alters behavior that has consistently paid off and rewarded us with things we covet and have worked hard to achieve?  Management jobs are positions of authority; they put us in charge of something, whether that something is big or small.  Generally, management positions pay more money than non-management jobs and they convey a definite status in most organizations.  In many organizations the management hierarchy represents an exclusive club, with perks unavailable to the workforce as a whole.  Thus, buying into those behaviors that generally characterize what one manager sees and experiences among his or her colleagues, can easily seem the best way to assure one’s tenure in the club.  Moreover, over time, a majority of club members are likely to feel they belong on the inside and quite enjoy all the privileges membership bestows.

To be sure, there are outliers in any management structure who march to their own drummer, yet survive and prosper because their organizations consistently deliver the goods.  But the behavior of these outliers does not define the management culture, the behavior of the majority does that.  And you can forget the fact that the preachings in the management training classes of many organizations, stand in direct conflict with every-day management behavior on the line.  It’s invariably the behavior that clearly pays off that prevails.


In her fascinating book entitled “Leadership and the New Science”, author Margaret Wheatley draws parallels between the self-renewing systems that we find in the natural world, and the self-organizing human system we find in modern business, commerce and governments throughout our world:

“We tend to think”, she writes, “that isolation and clear boundaries are the best way to maintain individuality. But in the natural world of self-organizing structures, we learn that useful boundaries develop through openness to the environment.  As the process of exchange continues between system and environment, the system, paradoxically, develops greater freedom from the demands of the environment………Companies organized around core competencies, provide a good example of how an organization can obtain internal stability that leads  both to well-defined boundaries and to openness over time. (P.93)

The key, argues Ms. Wheatley, is for the system — in our case a management system — to remain open and responsive to the information provided by its environment.  And it is within their environment that an organization will find the most credible, compelling, and defensible reasons to change management behaviors that no longer serve their adaptive needs.

First, the INTERNAL ENVIRONMENT.  When it is demonstrably clear that an organization is consistently underperforming, it is a good bet that something is amiss in how it’s being managed.  Low employee morale, frequent late arrivals and early departures, excessive use of sick leave, a poor retention rate, and the black humor that often pervades hallway talk and the rumor mill of a sick organization, all argue for a hard look at those management behaviors most likely at blame.  In the worst management cultures, unfortunately, these problems are often seen as employee-based and not the fault of how the organization’s managers think and behave.

Second, the EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT. Undeniable signs that technological, perceptual, or competitive changes in an organization’s operating environment are sufficient to threaten its very competitiveness, relevance or extinction, should inexorably lead to a hard look at the attitudes and behavior of those responsible for crafting a response.  If such external threats are not sufficient for building a case for some culture change, perhaps nothing else will.

Under any circumstances and for whatever reasons, changing identifiable, dysfunctional elements of a management culture will take some time and demand a sustained, dedicated, long-term effort THAT MUST BE LED FROM THE TOP.  Revolutionary overthrows of a management culture from below, rarely occur.  It is never easy but it can be done.  It has been done.

The bottom line is that the new management behaviors must  PAY-OFF.  Therefore, the new behaviors will require clear articulation in observable and measurable terms.  Then assiduously reward compliance and ruthlessly sanction non-compliance by withholding promotions, assignments, and eventually management team membership if necessary.

Self-organizing systems do not change over night.  They evolve.  But there comes that moment when, with sustained and persistent effort, the old management culture is no longer recognizable in how the organization’s managers have now come to behave.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing & Leading

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