a)plan coaching

Why Leaders Must Understand Their Roles in Creating Culture

With power comes great responsibility. Considering how positional authority is no different, with a)plan coach, Dr. Amy Chiang.

One cannot not communicate.

This well-known idea in the field of Communication suggests that every single action we take as humans communicates something – even silence, passivity, or disinterest. One cannot not communicate. It is a simple yet thought-provoking concept.

When it comes to leadership, this idea couldn’t ring more true. As leaders, we are constantly communicating both stated and unstated values through our behaviors and actions to those around us in our organizations. We are always setting the tone, whether or not we’ve embraced that responsibility to the fullest extent.

In the a)plan coaching network, there are few as qualified to speak on this concept as Dr. Amy Chiang. A resident a)plan senior coach, Amy is a leading voice on organizational systems change and transformation, executive development, and creating culture within systems.

At a)plan, we work with dozens of organizations that face challenges in Amy’s wheelhouse. So, we sat down with Amy to get her extended perspective on a worthwhile topic: the responsibility of leaders in shaping organizational culture. 

The following ideas are those of Amy’s, and we thank her for making the time to share her perspective on the a)plan blog.

To first lay some groundwork for this topic – how do you define leadership?

Broadly speaking, a leader can be anyone. We are always watching and observing each other as human beings, so we are always in a position to display a way of being or relating that is impactful and notable. But when we specifically look at the workplace context, managers, directors and executives tend to have the most influence in setting the tone for what is considered normal in a particular work setting. Their actions send subtle messages to team members surrounding what is considered acceptable behavior, which are often driven by unstated values and assumptions.

In your coaching engagements, do leaders tend to understand that they have this responsibility?

In my experience, C-level executives are generally more aware of how they might create culture through their actions. When they hold a C-level title, they are often cognizant of it. This means they are thinking about how they are showing up and how the rest of the organization might take these as cues as “the way things are” or should be. I find that at the manager and director levels, people are less aware of their role in creating culture – or have yet come to realize that there’s an elevated importance on the examples they set. 

Why might those at the managerial-level fail to recognize the importance of the examples they set?

It’s sometimes just a result of the organization’s practices. Employees are dropped into managerial roles for individual performance that is completely independent from their leadership abilities. Take, for example, a great engineer getting promoted to a manager level. We live in a power-focused culture so we tend to celebrate the act of promotion itself: more power and more responsibility tends to equate to something positive for someone’s career. But getting promoted doesn’t always mean that this hypothetical engineer has the requisite skills to show up as a proficient leader who understands this newfound responsibility to help shape the company culture. As a coach, I find myself supporting the learning path for many of these individuals to become great leaders, so that they are more aware of the responsibilities that go beyond simple managerial duties.

What does carrying that leadership responsibility “correctly” look like?

Well let me first clarify – the responsibility should not be viewed as some additional burden for these new managers and directors. Those who really care about the organization can leverage that responsibility to have an impact and shape their organization for the better. That’s what can be particularly exciting about being a leader within an organization. As far as owning that responsibility “correctly,” it entirely depends on the organization and the desired outcomes for an improved future version of the org.

Can you share an example?

Well, opportunities to embrace that leadership responsibility often appear in issue-driven scenarios. A really common issue I see at companies is that only a few voices are being heard and considered when it comes to large-scale initiatives, or methods for improving organizational effectiveness. As a leader, one might think that they must act as an “expert” and dictate the changes to be made. 

In my opinion, being a leader in this case is really about facilitating or creating new systems to allow for more voices to come through when working through large initiatives. Doing this allows for a greater sense of ownership across the organization, in a way that helps people feel more included and allows team members to have a better perspective of their contribution to the work. 

Embracing the opportunity to do that is not only the right thing to do, it also communicates so much more than simply showing up as a person who is enacting a new direction in the organization. It is a demonstration of unstated values such as: everyone’s perspective matters, and we are in this together. Culture, or “the way we do things around here,” is created through these moments and other experiences that trend in a similar fashion. 

Can you speak more to the importance of having values as a leader and living by them?

It all starts with the notion that our behaviors and actions represent our values. It’s human nature to “judge” others based on their actions, but we need to be curious about the underlying values that fuel those actions. As a leader, the key here is congruence: Is there alignment between your actions and the supposed values you claim to hold near and dear? If there’s incongruence, your workforce may not trust you. 

A good example is the boss who claims to embrace work-life-balance, but still sends emails at 2:00 AM. What does that communicate to your team? Are others expected to do the same? Is work-life-balance really a core value? Your exterior – that is, your behaviors and your actions – must align with your values in order for your organization to trust you as a leader. 

The deeper reason for this is due to the need for psychological safety in the workplace. As human beings, we are constantly watching for signals – especially from those of our bosses or managers, who hold greater power in organizations than we do – whether we’d like to admit this or not. In this example, a manager who acts inconsistently with the words he or she espouses potentially creates confusion in their workforce on what ways of being and working are deemed normal or acceptable. 

Where does coaching fit into all of this?

Coaching is an opportunity to help individuals to become more aware of how they show up. Specifically, working with a coach can help leaders become more conscious of the unstated and stated set of values that they operate within, and show up in greater congruence to foster greater trust within the organization.

Coaching is also one of the most effective ways for people to develop the skills, emotional intelligence, and overall perspective required to become a great leader. It is a great opportunity to have a thought partner in identifying developmental goals to become the best leader one can be within an organization.

And finally, some parting words for our readers?

Having a level of awareness of how one shows up as a leader and how this subsequently impacts the team is extremely important to cultivate as a skill. Doing this work, as well as showing up in a way that is congruent, creates psychological safety and allows teams to feel comfort and facilitates trust in our leaders. Coaches can help managers and directors with this process of becoming more aware of how they show up so that they can be even more effective leaders within the workplace and beyond. 

Thank you again to Amy for sharing her rich perspective on culture, values, and leadership. To learn more about Amy and her work, check out her a)plan profile here.

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