Culture’s Cogs – Imperatives

Synopsis: Imperatives are the core values of the management team and the foundation stones of corporate culture. To influence corporate culture, leaders need to bring clarity and consistency to their imperatives.

This post is part 2 in the Cultures Cog’s series of posts. Click here for – Part 1

As a follow up to my discussion on the topic of “culture’s cogs” I thought I would dive a bit deeper into each of the cogs. In this post I’ll explore the issue of imperatives. As noted in my original post, imperatives are the core values that the management team deeply believes in and hence the foundation for the decisions they make when running the business. Depending on their needs, different organizations will have different imperatives. For some the imperatives might include things such as product quality or innovation, for others it might be customer service or worker safety.

Imperatives are not just words, they are deep-seated values that drive thinking, behaviour and decision-making. While many organizations may say that things like product quality and innovation are their core values, sometimes there is no real substance behind those proclamations. To tell if something really is an imperative you have to look at the actions the organization takes. When push comes to shove, does management act in accordance with the stated values? If they do, then those are indeed imperatives, if they don’t, then those aren’t imperatives they’re simply slogans.

Imperatives can be powerful things, when a person genuinely believes in an imperative there can be real conviction behind their actions. Rarely will they violate the value and when they do it is only as a last resort. Furthermore, if ever they find themselves in a situation in which they are forced to violate one of their imperatives, they may well feel a sense of anguish that what they are doing it not right. As a result they are careful to ensure everyone knows that this is an unusual situational and they go to lengths to ensure people understand the reasons for the violation. If possible, they may also go to lengths to try and right the wrong after it has been committed thereby alleviating the anguish.

In talking to the organizations participating in my research it is clear that beneficial cultures form when the leaders have clear imperatives. Giving staff a frame of reference within which to work, clear imperatives act like a compass from which everyone can align. Acting as reference points within the culture the imperatives help team members understand priorities, expectations and how their leaders will assess their individual performance. Where senior management is able to crystallize those reference points and embed them within their own thinking and behaviour they have a start point from which to propagate their desired culture down through the layers of their organization and out to its extremities.

For CEO’s or leaders wanting to sharpener or transform their cultures, the first step is to clarify their own imperatives and then align the imperatives of their senior managers. If senior managers all have different opinions or keep vacillating on their values, staff will get mixed messages. Aligning a senior management team is of course easier said than done. Senior Managers are often type A personalities and already have firm views on what is most important and how things should be done. Getting them to agree on things can be hard and then getting them to actually live the imperatives can be even harder. Part of the problem is that few senior managers have ever received any training in which the link between culture, imperatives and leadership has been discussed. Sometimes a “come to Jesus” type meeting to openly discuss values and culture is enough to get people thinking along the right lines. Other times it can be more difficult. In two of the organizations I visited, the CEOs had replaced senior managers who they felt didn’t share their values (and hence were not a good fit for the culture they were trying to form).

Once the senior management team is aligned, the next challenge is to embed the imperatives into the behaviours of the managers and leaders at the lower levels within the organization. For that to happen senior management need to lead by example. The values being espoused need to be physically manifest in the decisions the senior management team makes and the way in which they interact with the staff. If senior management violate the values or are capricious in their application, staff will quickly loose confidence in the senior management. Seeing the pronouncements as nothing more than the flavour of the month, people will quickly forget and revert back to their prior patterns of behaviour. Avoiding that problem, building up the trust and getting people acclimatized to the style of work takes time. Culture is certainly not a tap that can quickly be turned on or off. It takes consistency and time for people to get used to a new way of behaving. It also requires management to master the subtle arts of setting expectations and giving feedback (the second and third cogs in the “culture’s cogs” model). I’ll discuss those two dimensions in subsequent posts.

Before wrapping up this thread, it is worth noting that leaders at any level of an organization can be the ones who initiate a culture. In two of the cases I explored in preparing this series of posts, the leaders who were instrumental in forming a culture were not senior managers. Instead, they were Project Managers who filled a void of leadership left by hands-off managers above them. In both cases the individuals simply used their own initiative and imperatives to guide their teams. In the first case the primary imperative was quality. Fortunately the team involved shared the same core values as the Project Manager which enabled a relatively rapid formation of a distinct culture. In the second case the Project Manager emphasized both quality and the need to be properly organized. In that case the affected staff were initially less supportive, however consistent application of the imperatives did eventually result in buy in and the formation of a lasting positive culture. In both cases, results prior to the arrival of the new leader were lacklustre, while results after the new leader arrived were highly successful. Demonstrating that getting culture right can deliver real business value, these two cases help illustrate how leadership and culture are two closely entwined concepts. In essence, leaders shape cultures and the imperatives the leaders bring to the table act as the anchor to which norms of behaviour within the culture are tied.

See also:

  1. Culture’s cogs – The first post in this series
  2. Cultures cogs – Cog 2 – Using expectations to shape a culture