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4 hard facts about your organization’s ‘soft’ side

Thought Leadership on Execution Strategies presented by Simple Solutions.

Most leaders understand that achieving high performance in an organization requires hard work. For example, executives who successfully execute a business strategy to produce sustained growth, profits and high customer satisfaction are thought to posses the highest level of business acumen and dedication.

Less well known is that the hardest part of achieving a high level of performance is addressing the “soft” human issues that underlie organizational life.

It is common for executives to believe that the human experiences — dare I say feelings — that accompany their work are not only unrelated to their professional lives, but are unwanted components of it — ones to be actively avoided.

Contrary to this belief, the truth is that high performance and successful change result from an executive’s ability to acknowledge, address and realign the assumptions that underlie an organization’s core beliefs, and the behaviors they produce. It is the individual and collective feelings about identity, purpose, sense of belonging, and perceptions of competence, effectiveness, failure, fear, etc. that define how organizations behave and thereby, their ability to execute and succeed.

The basic artifacts of an organization — including its structure, mission, goals, business processes and methods for allocating resources, among others, are all founded upon the shared assumptions about “soft” issues, such as group identity, interpersonal relationships, and agreed upon social norms of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” actions. These elements define the organization’s culture, and thereby define the organization itself.

Recognizing that these zones may seem unfamiliar (and even antithetical) to one’s perception of professional life, below are four important facts about culture offered to executives as motivation to get acquainted with the “soft” sides of their organization and themselves.

  1. Culture determines the success and limits of strategy. An organization’s strategy is often thought of as a calculated, analytical exercise in defining advantageous moves and counter moves against savvy competitors. In fact, however, an organization’s ability to fulfill any strategic plan is limited by potential cultural mismatches with elements in the external and internal environments. Examples of the external environment include a new business endeavor, a new partner, and a new geographic location. Examples of internal areas for potential mismatch include inter-group conflicts, incomplete socialization of new organization members, communication breakdowns in face-to-face relationships and ineffective meetings, and gaps in defining key organizational terms throughout the enterprise, such as productivity and success. Effective strategic planning and execution require a proper alignment of the existing external and internal cultural components with the new ones to be introduced.
  1. Culture determines the success of technology implementation. An organization’s values and self-image, as well as the collective and individual behaviors of its members, are all tied to an underlying understanding of how it performs tasks and gets work done. Therefore, as an organization must adopt new business practices to utilize new technology, it must also redefine parts of its identity in substantive ways. Failure to effectively address this cultural component of technology implementations is the leading cause of their failures to achieve projected efficiencies and returns on investment.
  1. Culture is established and owned exclusively by the organization’s leadership. The culture of every organization results from the intentions, definitions, and values that are historically and continuously validated and passed on to new members as “the correct way to do things” by leadership. The ability to create, manage, and, when necessary, destroy culture in an organization is arguably the only role that is unique to its leaders.[1] This aspect of leadership is woefully underemphasized the popular “how to” literature and even less frequently practiced by leaders themselves.
  1. Cultural issues are most successfully identified and addressed by a joint effort of insiders and outsiders to the organization. An organization’s underlying patters of behaviors are often so taken for granted by its members (including leadership), that they are likely to have dropped out of consciousness by all. This makes its core cultural elements nearly impossible to discern by the organization itself. Hiring outside assistance with cultural issues is justifiably the most effective way to bring awareness and mastery to what is difficult to distinguish with internal resources alone.

An organization’s culture determines its ability to adapt, compete and achieve at the highest level, and therefore is a cornerstone to an organization’s successes and failures. The belief that a stoical application of logic is the best approach to guide the operation and strategy of an organization is a distortion.

For Executives, this distortion is worth paying attention to and reconsidering, despite any discomfort it may cause. An aversion to an organization’s emotional content (i.e. its culture) can make it difficult, if not impossible, to successfully set and execute a strategy, and to diagnose and solve problems.

The highest performing leaders know this. As a result, they don’t work harder, they work braver and smarter and feel great about it.

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[1] Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership