When Ideals Meet Reality: Practical Solutions for Shaping Organizational Culture

Do you find the organizations you work with in a moment of culture contemplation? You are not alone. Even before businesses around the world found themselves in this global moment of reckoning, in recent years many workplaces have come to recognize how vital it is to define and actively manage their organization’s culture.

In fact, when we polled over 100 attendees of a recent webinar, 82% said that the organizations they work with consider managing culture to be either a major consideration or mission-critical – indicating that the culture imperative is top of mind for many.

Just because an organization sees culture as a priority doesn’t mean they know exactly what to do about it, however. So this week, we spent an hour exploring how to take an organization from ideals to execution in the webinar Shaping Organizational Culture: Best Practices and Real-World Methodologies, led by MRG’s David Ringwood.

Read on for the highlights from the webinar, or watch it on-demand here. (MRG clients, you have access to this and our full library of past webinars in the MRG Knowledge Base.)

The work of shaping organizational culture can be looked at in three phases: Concept, Practice, and Reality.

Phase 1: Clarity of Concept

In the concept phase, the organization tackles an essential challenge: establishing clarity around the fundamentals of your desired organizational culture. It is an important step to get right, as it lays the ground work for all the actions thereafter.

It is tempting to intellectualize and idealize organizational culture. There are a near-infinite number of culture models and frameworks available. However, many of these models superimpose a top-down framework – one that may be out of step with the actual fabric of the organization.

More and more organizations are embracing a more bottom-up approach to organizational culture. As you clarify your concept, focus on the three areas that matter most: mindsets, behaviors, and values. Then work on establishing the language you will use to describe them. (For help with practical approaches to this work, see the webinar slides – you’ll find sample exercises on slides 12-15.)

Remember, every step of this process requires consideration and reflection, and it is iterative. Do not expect perfection from the start.

Part of the challenging work of clarifying your concept is that you must establish not only a top line, but a bottom line as well. In other words – what will the organization no longer tolerate? As many high-profile organizations have faced very public reckonings regarding problematic workplace culture, it is reasonable to fear an increased level of scrutiny when individuals with a negative cultural impact are allowed to remain within the organization. And with good reason: culture must not only be defined, but also demonstrated; and allowing someone who violates the stated culture to stay on board and remain toxic is a tacit endorsement of their behavior – and a violation of the promise the organization has made to its people.

Phase 2: Putting it into Practice

The second phase involves translating cultural ideals into actionable, behavioral practices. As an organization, what actions are we taking to reach the outcomes we desire?

As you approach this step, it can be helpful to spend some time examining the research about which behaviors align with effectiveness in the areas you’ve prioritized.

For example, these different aspects of culture have different leadership profiles:

  • Managing Diversity: leaders who manage diversity effectively tend to place more emphasis on interpersonal relationships, working cooperatively, and taking a broader perspective
  • Entrepreneurial leadership: highly effective entrepreneurs are high-energy and quick to win others over to their ideas; they delegate responsibility and ownership throughout the organization; and they don’t adhere to strict hierarchies
  • Employee engagement: leaders who are highly effective at employee engagement emphasize communication, as well as a sense of command, and are generally less autocratic

As an organization begins to outline its practices for establishing culture, they must also bear in mind that there will be some road blocks.

First, as we can see from the examples above, different aspects of leadership can require quite different sets of behaviors. We must recognize, therefore, that we cannot expect each individual leader to entirely embody every aspect of our desired culture – a shared leadership model is far more effective in achieving all of your objectives.

We must also be willing to recognize the derailers in our midst – in other words, they types of leaders who are so problematic that they can undermine organizational efforts to improve the culture. Our research reveals four behavior profiles that you may want to look out for – learn more about them here.

Phase 3: Dealing with Reality

Of course, to be effective, even the most careful and thoughtful culture ideals will have to withstand the ultimate test: reality. Things in the workplace never go exactly (or even approximately) according to plan. (After all, would anyone a year ago have imagined they’d have most or all of their employees working remotely for months on end?) In culture work, we must be willing to regularly evaluate, reevaluate, and reiterate.

To “reality-proof” your culture efforts, your work must include three critical steps:

  1. Define your priority leadership practices and derailers. A clear and effective definition of desired culture must include not only what the organization wants to do more, but also, essentially, what it will not tolerate. Setting boundaries for what is no longer acceptable is a critical part of this work. (For those familiar with the LEA™ family of assessments, the LEA Strategic Directions™ process will support this work.)
  2. Measure the actual current practices in the organization. While there may be surprises – not all of them pleasant – it is essential to recognize what is actually happening within the organization at the outset of your work. Without knowing where you deviate from your desired culture, it is impossible to know where to allocate resources and focus efforts. (Again, if you are a user of the LEA™ suite, the LEA Culture™ is an effective tool for taking this measurement, and provides empirical, data-based insights into current culture and areas where efforts are needed.)
  3. Consider the practical and actionable implications for cultural change. Consider how the organization is reinforcing positive behaviors – those that model the desired culture – and how it is discouraging or eliminating behaviors that undermine the desired state. There should be actionable, tangible modes of reinforcement in place.

For a more in-depth look, you can download the full webinar here. We also received a number of questions that we weren’t able to address during the broadcast. Read on for answers.

And if you have further questions, or ideas for topics you’d like to see in an upcoming MRG webinar, get in touch!

Questions & Answers

Q: How do you address a toxic culture if the leader doesn’t care about it?

A: That’s a difficult scenario. If we’re going to lead cultural change effectively, we have to do so by example. A leader who does not represent a role model at some level is probably not the best person to lead the charge, so I would probably want to gather the key stakeholders, to create a collective momentum around cultural change tied not only to organizational success but also to the career and monetary advantage of those who stand to benefit. This makes it more likely that the resistant leader will come under pressure from other substantial stakeholders or that he/she will be wise enough to see which way the wind is blowing.

Q: Can we measure “great” corporate culture and performance?

A: Yes, but it’s best to do so objectively. Asking the fans or the detractors will draw the inevitable views, and an empirical approach that uses a well-designed tool makes this much more achievable. Facts and measurements tend to be more meaningful than anecdotes, and the specificity provided by using a sophisticated tool means that the areas where cultural change are needed become much clearer, and therefore the methods needed to achieve such change there can be invested in with a greater degree of confidence about the positive impact it will achieve.

More broadly, MRG research can tell us a great deal in factual, empirical terms about “great” corporate culture. It is better to narrow it down to a specific industry, geography or management level rather than to take too broad an approach.

Q: Many of my clients don’t have a common understanding of the word CULTURE, which makes talking culture very ineffective. Often when they say culture, they actually talk about different behaviors. My colleagues and I see culture as attitudes and norms, which impact behaviors but must not be confused with the behavior. A certain behavior can be driven by very different sets of ”culture.” What are your thoughts on that?

A: Culture can be defined in different ways, but it is a living thing that exists within the organization and often defies conventional definitions. Attitudes, values, mindsets and of course behaviours all feed into cultural dynamics. This is why the early stage definition of the ideal culture, in our view, should explore many different facets (such as those demonstrated in the webinar) but the exploration process also should illuminate the potential diversity of views of same within the executive team or key stakeholder group. This is often where cultural dynamics can entail oppositional views around values, norms, etc., even if those individuals agree on the ultimate commercial and strategic objectives. MRG provide an approach called Strategic Directions that very effectively surfaces all of these factors and provide greater clarity and unanimity about which specific behaviours best epitomize the type of practices needed to positively reflect the types of values and mindsets most needed in the organization.

Q: In light of your description of behaviors vs competencies in the LEA™, how would you describe “skills”?

A: For the purposes of the research used in the webinar, skills refer to the 27 competencies measures in the 360 version of the Leadership Effectiveness Analysis (LEA 360). These competencies provide rating of the effectiveness of the leader on a 1 to 7 Likert scale, using input from their Boss(es), Peers and Direct Reports.

Q: [In regard to the behavior profile of leaders who are effective at managing diversity] When we look at their low feedback score, does that mean they give critical feedback less?

A: There are two implications here, one is relative to another important behaviour indicated in the research. The lower range of feedback associated with more effective leaders in the relevant competency simply means that are more selective in when/the extent to which they provide feedback to others. The research indicates that Communication was a behaviour emphasized by the more effective leaders, which is really about setting clear expectations from the outset. In short, what this means is the early stage expectations-setting if probably more important that later stage or downstream feedback, which might be somewhat after the fact. It’s a question of timing as well as content.

Q: I guess an entrepreneurial culture would nurture a group of intrapreneurs. I suspect they are different from entrepreneurs, such as less self-oriented?

A: There might well be differences but we would need to look in more details to see where exactly (and to what extent) such differences might exist.

Q: How effective are companywide culture surveys?

A: By themselves, they have little effect. How well they are designed, what insights they provide and how the company actions those insights are the real measures of effectiveness. Cultural change has to live within the day-to-day experience of being a part of an organization, and that change has to be in service of the strategic and commercial priorities of the company. Building change into process and sustaining the changing trajectory is where longer term effective change is achieves. A culture survey by itself is therefore only one step (and potentially an important one), but it needs the right supporting conditions to translate good intentions into meaningful and effective change.

Q: How long would a typical journey take to get to the practice stage? Have you attempted to do this online?

A: There are too many practical and contextual considerations involved to identify a typical time frame. It also depends on what types of processes already exist in the organization, how sophisticated they are, or whether the company is in fact starting more or less from scratch. It can be harder to change an entrenched culture or to move fully to the practice stage if they have never embedded the essential cultural practices into their selection and development models, their performance management and reward systems, and such like. This is one reason why I often start a process by assessing where the company is on its cultural journey and what supporting conditions will be needed in order to move from positive aspiration to actual practice. I have never tried to do this type of work exclusively online, but there is often a good degree of remote or virtual engagement.


(Are you part of the MRG network? Log into the MRG Knowledge Base once to access the full MRG research library.)

Also, if there’s anything we at MRG can do to help support you or advise you as you transition to more online coaching, training, and facilitation, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re all working through this together (even if we’re apart!).

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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