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Updated: November 13, 2023 Outside the Box

We, as leaders, dictate the culture

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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Dear organizational leaders, when something is not working in my home – whether my kids are struggling or we’re out of a food staple -- the first thing I ask myself is, “What role have I played in this breakdown?”

Leaders, we are the parents/guardians/sponsors, the highest authority, and most prominent oversight of the organizations that we lead. Everyone in the organization is watching what we do and don’t do, what we say and don’t say, how we respond, when we are loudest, and when we are silent. Employees observe us, and many follow suit, emulating what we do, from our modeling.

Of course, in some cases, they intentionally do the opposite because they don’t want to be like us.

When we are wrong, we should say it, and apologize authentically. When we are excited or convicted about something happening in the organization -good or bad - it’s important that personnel know it and understand why.

If we slight someone, lead with ego, or suck the last breadth of psychological safety out of the room, we should find the safe, open, willing-to-be-vulnerable, growth mindset ventilator and resuscitate that room as soon as possible.

We need to be consistent, clear, and warm to give praise where praise is due, and discipline or redirect bad behavior when appropriate.

We should not play favorites. The only favorite should be “the family,” the security of the household, which is the organization, grounded by its mission.

The good news is that however we showed up yesterday, we can change today and grow every day, if we choose to. We can reinvent ourselves continuously.

The only constant is change, and so we must adapt to the eminent changes that ensue. We have to evolve our abilities, capability, and capacity over time.

Our personal innovation is congruent with the innovation of our organizations. In this, it is critical to understand that strategic thinking and planning is a priority, but “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We, the leaders, dictate and perpetuate the culture.

We are the culture champions, for better or worse. We have the power, the authority, and the influence to dictate the organizational culture. While policies and practices do determine cultural outcomes, leaders create the policies and practices.

When people refer to “the culture,” they are referring to us, the leaders. Leaders cannot extrapolate themselves from the cultural outcomes of an organization, we are very interconnected to it.

While the buck does stop with leaders, culture is everyone’s responsibility. When organizational culture is bad, or at the very least it needs improvement, employees are either complacent with it, perpetuating it, or working to change it.

If we want to change organizational culture, then we must be introspective and self-reflective. First, we must change ourselves. The fruit that we bear comes from our roots. Leaders have blind spots and fears and biases and bad habits. In short, we are human. It’s okay that we misstep and fail.

What’s most important is how we respond to our deficiencies and how we listen to what our colleagues are telling us, listening to what they know and see, and responding thoughtfully, intentionally, and with humility. This is empathy.

When our organizations are struggling, we must ask ourselves, first, “what role did I play in this breakdown?”

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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