Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

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Three ways leaders influence culture5 min read

Three weeks after starting my new job I was having a conversation with my wife.

“I don’t know that it is a great idea to go out tonight, it will be late and we have commitments in the morning.”

She responded, “I know, but this will be the last chance to go out to a concert for awhile. We should go. “

I nodded, and said “fair”.

She laughed, “Did you just say, ‘fair’?”

It was an odd thing for me to say. I normally speak in, more or less, complete sentences and it was an unusual interjection that was definitely outside my normal speech pattern. A leader at my new job nods and says “fair” all the time and his habit has been adopted by many people in the office. In 3 weeks, I had adapted to and had been changed by my environment.

Dr. Robert Cialdini has set out six principles of persuasion that influence people’s behavior and these are very much at play in the creation of an organization’s culture. Three of these principles are particularly impactful for leaders to consider: authority, scarcity and consistency.

As I shared in a past article, you are truly a leader when people have chosen to follow you. By choosing to follow you as a leader, people grant you authority and power. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As more people choose to follow you, the actions you take and the words you say are given greater meaning. Additionally, more of your words and actions will be copied by others. Because of your authority your actions will have a tendency to become norms within the organization. As a result, it is critical to be thoughtful about your behavior.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman recalls: “I was working with American Express in 1993 when Harvey Golub became the new CEO. He wore suspenders. Within a few weeks so did everyone else. In our corporate cultures, we school, like fish.” If a fashion choice by a CEO can have this kind of an impact than certainly other behaviors will certainly be copied as well.

The larger the team you are responsible for, the less time you end up spending with each team member. It is important to be visible and available as a leader, but mathematically it is not possible to spend the same amount of time with everyone on your team. This means that when leaders do interact with team members who are more distant from them on the organizational chart, it is a much rarer occurrence and as a result, the scarcity of those interactions leads to those interactions carrying more weight. As a leader, you have many interactions with members of your teams each day, but the amount of time that each member of your team has with you is far more limited. The scarcity of these interactions creates greater value for each one and the words you say and how you say them have outsized impacts.

I remember one senior leader who rarely attended team meetings. He did come to one meeting, and he was clearly agitated. He expressed that he was very nervous and concerned that we were not going complete the project on time. His anxiety may have been passing, but his words and behaviors left a lasting impression; even as the schedule solidified the memory of the boss’ nervousness kept many on the team on edge.

As a leader, your team looks for the patterns in your behaviors and your consistency is critical to how culture is established. The more you do things, the more others will emulate those behaviors and it will become part of the culture. Consistency is a powerful force on its own, and when it is paired with the authority of leadership and the scarcity that is inherent in direct interactions, its force is multiplied. In marketing, people often talk about the rule of seven: until someone hears your message seven times it will not stick. As leaders, the things you do and say over and over again will stick and become part of expectations.

I am reminded of a leader I worked with that sent an email to his team every week, in that email he would always remind his team that they were his top priority and that he loved them. He was the same way in person, he would greet his team with hugs and always made time for those who needed it. He was consistent in meetings, in email and one-on-one to always make sure that the message that he was there for his team and that he loved them was clear.

The habits of the leaders within an organization influence the type of culture that the organization will have. The good news is that this means that as a leader if you show up as present and caring, as positive and supportive, and as curious and open, you will help create a culture in your organization that responds in those ways. Because of the authority given to the leader by the team, and the scarcity of how often each member of the team sees you in action, it is critical that you be consistent in your words and actions.

As a leader, one of the most important questions you can ask yourself is this: if everyone in our organization were to act and speak the way that I do would that be the organization I would want to create and would that serve the people of the organization well? If your answer to this question cannot be a resounding yes then you are probably not setting the right example for your team. The goal is not to create a team that blindly copies the leader, but as a leader people will follow what you do and it is your responsibility to model behaviors that inspire people to be their best selves.

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formerly Keith Corbin Coaching

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