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Simon Thiessen

CEO, Culture Consultant, Facilitator

This article was personally written by Simon Thiessen based on over 30 years experience with leadership and workplace culture

Who creates culture? Leaders... Team members... or Both?

A theme has emerged in several workplaces we are currently working with to help them shape their culture.

Each of these workplaces have solid workplace cultures but are striving to create excellent ones. In each of them, we have been asked the same pair of questions.

The question from the leaders. How much impact do the decisions we make have? Decisions are only intentions, but culture comes down to what everyone does and the choices they make.

 The question from team members. Do our choices actually make a difference? Leaders have all the influence.

In one workplace, a team member described this with an analogy. What’s the point of the separating my recycling if the oil companies don’t change their practices?

Starting with the assumption that everyone wants to work in the best workplace culture possible, both perspectives are valid.

Do leaders have a disproportionate influence on workplace culture? Absolutely. Sure, they make the big decisions about policies and systems, but more importantly, they model (or should) the culture they are striving to create. They coach individuals and facilitate team dynamics to align with that ideal workplace culture.

In our experience, there are very few exceptionally good or exceptionally bad ‘employees’. There are just normal people responding to the workplace culture and leadership they are exposed to.
When we refer to ‘employees’ we mean people in the workplace – whether they are front line contributors, middle managers, or senior executives.

Think about yourself. I bet you have been a great ‘employee’ in at least one workplace, an average one somewhere else, and possibly mediocre in another workplace. What was the difference? Not you or your personality, values, or character. I bet it was a lot to do with what it was like to work in that workplace and what your manager was like.

Whatever level it was, most people reading this article tended to reinforce the workplace culture rather than alter it.

So, yes. Leader’s have a disproportionate influence and they need to lead the way in culture change.

But it’s not that simple.

While people respond to the leadership they are exposed to, we all still have a choice as to how we respond. Even if the oil companies aren’t changing their practices, how does it help if we don’t separate our recycling, reduce our waste, etc?

Wouldn’t we better off, even marginally, if we did what we could do?

That’s where the analogy stops being useful. While the oil companies are probably doing very little to reduce their impact on the environment, leadership teams almost always are doing things – even if those things are not having immediate impacts and are not as visible as they could be. Even when some people believe they should be doing different things, more things, quicker things, leaders are actually doing things (which should be obvious when they have contracted us to work on the culture!)

The reality is that while a leader has a disproportionate influence compared to other team members, there are disproportionately more team members than leaders. One current client has a CEO, eight executive members, 25 managers and team leaders, and around 300 other team members. That makes 34 people in management role, compared to 300 non-management team members. The sum of choices by those 300 team members can be significant and can drive meaningful cultural change – towards the culture those team members, and the managers, want.

Which brings us to the sphere of influence and how it impacts workplace culture. Some people want to work in a better culture, recognise there are things they can’t change, and get frustrated. They need to give voice to that frustration, so they complain to other people, usually people who are equally unable to change those things. In doing so, negativity spreads, frustration becomes outrage – and then they have something new to complain about. The workplace is so negative!

Other people want a better culture, recognise there are things they can’t change, so focus on the things they can do. They align their own actions with the workplace culture they want, they help solve problems, they provide a counterpoint to negativity, etc. In other words, they do the things that are in their control. As a result, they win respect from their colleagues and managers, and their influence grows.

The bottom-line message is that everyone in the workplace influences the workplace culture in some way. The more each person at every level takes responsibility for their own impact on the culture, and for doing what they can do, the more their individual influence grows, and the quicker the organisation moves towards that ideal culture. The ideal culture that everyone wants.