Winning as a Cultural Habit

Leaders have a responsibility to ensure their organization’s culture is positive and nourishing to build and maintain a winning culture.
In: Column, Culture, Leadership

September 21, 2010

Winning and losing can become habits; self-fulfilling prophecies. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys. All teams make mistakes, suffer the occasional mental lapse and endure bad breaks. But teams on a losing skid have the knack for underperforming at exactly the right second to cause disastrous results. (This, after all these years, still causes me to yell at the TV with such ferocity that our pets scamper to seek shelter in the 100-degree heat. Even as the corners of the TV curl back from the sound wave, I think, “Hmm. I thought I would have outgrown this by now.”) Then, for the team, self-doubt pays a visit, the pressure gets ratcheted up to unbearable levels, and what we fear the most happens to us again. It wouldn’t be natural for the Cowboys’ offense not to wonder if their destiny for this season is to lead their opponents in all statistical categories—except the score.

With intense, high-level competition, the difference between winning and losing can be razor-thin. It is the same thin line that can separate excellence from mediocrity in organizations. As one CEO of a manufacturing company told our peer group, “People don’t understand the difference between making $600,000 and losing $600,000 in a year is that much.” He held up his hand with the thumb and forefinger the tiniest fraction of an inch apart, a silly little millimeter. It’s a great case for paying attention to details, yet it points out there is something else leaders should do, too.

I recently finished an excellent book by Edgar H. Schein titled: Organizational Culture and Leadership. Although the examples are dated, the principles are sound. Dr. Schein, using his background in Social Psychology, focuses on why individuals and groups behave the way we do—because we are human—and how culture becomes embedded not only in the beginning but throughout an organization’s lifespan. His focus is to help leaders understand they must dig deep to know their own culture, particularly as to how it will constrain or aid change and growth initiatives.

Organizational culture is complex and has been defined in many ways: the group’s personality; the way things get done around here, including what gets rewarded and what gets punished; Schein says culture is a collection of deeply-held assumptions that are non-negotiable and taken for granted. After a while, they inhabit our subconscious, and we don’t even think about why we are doing what we do. Most importantly, he has learned one has to probe to understand the real heart of the cultural matter. Outward signs, and especially official propaganda, can be very misleading. Like the joke where the executive says, “If people are our most valuable asset, let’s sell them.” Actions often betray words!

Leaders have a responsibility to ensure their organization’s culture is positive and nourishing to build and maintain a winning culture. Here are some primary ways Schein says leaders embed culture:

  1. What you pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis
  2. How you react to critical incidents and crises
  3. How you allocate resources
  4. Deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching
  5. How you allocate rewards and status
  6. How you recruit, select, promote, and terminate

Interestingly, one's example provides the most powerful leadership tool; formal corporate documents come at the end of his secondary list. Schein wisely notes, “It is the consistency that is important, not the intensity of the attention.” Leaders have the opportunity to craft a winning culture by acting like a winner—24/7—with principled actions that support majestic words.

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