“We are all just prisoners here, of our own device” – Hotel California, Eagles
When someone is in a leadership role, they tend to think that many of the challenges they face are outside of their control— for example, their position or title in the organization, the experience or commitment of the team they lead, or factors like limited budget and other resources. These factors are in fact parameters or constraints that need to be dealt with, they do not define the overall culture or mission. What is most important is the context of these challenges, and how they relate to the overall mission and culture of the organization. Are these challenges parameters of the market situations faced by the organization, or do they grow out of the core values and objectives? This is why understanding the mission and culture is so important, so we can ensure that our personal and leadership goals and objectives are consistent and aligned with the organization.
How do we tangibly define and assess an organizational culture? We can start with elements like organizational vision and mission statements. Certainly, any deviation from your personal perspective at this level should raise red flags, but these types of statements are rarely something you might find concerning or inflammatory. The Enron corporate statement of values included the words integrity, respect, and excellence - words that ring hollow when in retrospect you realize it was a culture of anything but those values. From within an organization, it is probably easiest to assess culture by just looking around, especially outside the bubble of our own circumstance, with an intentional purpose.
Of course, it is also critical to be self-aware, the critical first step to developing your personal and leadership potential. List your personal value set, and compare that to the culture you are in. If you value being in an inclusive environment, do you see evidence of a commitment to inclusiveness in the organization? If you detest waste and inefficiency, does the organization commit to a culture of process improvement and change? Look deeper than just the surface, what I call the lip service level. Do you see people that recognize and are energized by what is claimed to exist in the culture, or do you see frustration due to perceived lack of commitment to the ideals?
As the Eagles sang in Hotel California, we really can be prisoners of our own device. If we don’t understand, or acknowledge, the culture and environment of the organization, we may find ourselves constantly pounding against imaginary doors that won’t ever open, hoping and wishing the culture would be something different from what it is or is destined to be. Each individual needs to take the time to understand the culture around them, and then make sure they are personally aligned to the value systems, ethics, and mission within the company. If you are well aligned, you are positioned to be an effective and impactful leader in the organization. If you find minor misalignment, you will at least be aware of where you might be swimming against the current, but maybe you can even find a path and momentum to lead some change in that aspect of the culture. If you are completely misaligned to the culture, especially in areas of ethics or values, do yourself a favor and find somewhere else to take your talent and energy, else you may find yourself mentally and emotionally trapped. As an individual, these feelings can be discouraging and irritating, but as a leader, they can cause you to not lead with the passion and commitment you owe to those in your care, and could potentially even do them harm.
In future blogs and podcasts, I will discuss some of the techniques you can use to assess your alignment to organizational culture and mission. If you have any questions or comment about cultural alignment, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to hear your thoughts.