Updated: Jun 25
In many organizations, the CEO, Managing Director, Board and/or owner are the primary architects of the culture whether they are aware of it, or not. In organizations where the CEO is predisposed toward innovation and change, when the right employees are hired they can keep up with the dynamism.
More specifically, when employees can match the pace of the CEO or owner, they can not only keep up with him / her, they also help to drive the rate of change. When the team is challenged to keep up, the CEO or business owner is forced to slow down, or risk creating performance gaps. In circumstances like this, employees are doing their best but they are not equipped with the skills or desire to change at an accelerated pace. In the meantime, the CEO can become frustrated or bored.
In some organizations the CEO is the clear architect of unproductive power dynamics. In toxic environments, they amass power by playing games of favoritism, putting extensive controls in place and/ or rewarding corruption. These attributes all contribute to the formation of their respective cultural patterns. When CEOs and business owners facilitate the abuse of power, these power structures are replicated within the organization because the pattern is being fed or tolerated.
As with individuals, each organization has a unique personality. Within cultures, patterns of behavior are created and reinforced within an environment in much the same way that the human brain creates neural pathways every time a similar experience is encountered. In humans, a neural pathway is created whenever a situation is experienced. The pathway represents patterns of thoughts and emotions related to a stimulant that leads to a disciplined response or unregulated reaction. The more this pattern occurs, the more hard-wired the response / reaction becomes.
Within a culture, the acceptable patterns of behavior are initiated by the CEO. The network of employees more deeply encode this pattern within the culture by repeating this behavior, transforming it into a generally accepted norm or standard. In fact, those who do not comply are usually marginalized or eventually displaced by the organization because the ecosystem believes it needs compliance to survive.
When new leaders are promoted from within, if they have bought into and exemplify the established cultural norms, either consciously or unconsciously, they keep the culture alive. If they are intrinsically motivated by a value system that seeks to serve the greater good, they can bring about significant change, but this is not easy. Courage and stamina, are needed to withstand the colossal patterns of resistance that can emerge.
When a new CEO is brought in from another organization, sometimes the culture can overpower that leader and cause him or her to display behaviors that are aligned with the existing culture, especially if the hiring committee values those behaviors. For instance, in some organizations, hiring officers have certain informal rewards in place for themselves so they seek a replacement CEO who will not “rock the boat”. One who will be inclined to exchange a favor in return for one.
When a new CEO or business owner attempts to change a culture that is suffocating the organization because of unbridled power and control dynamics, he or she will inevitably meet with resistance. These executives and managers resist because they have taken years to create elaborate structures of power and control, so why should they adopt new behaviors?
With this in mind, you can understand why resistors seek to sustain an unproductive culture at any cost. These behavioral patterns may be unproductive for the team, but not for them personally.
One way senior and middle management resistors seek to maintain the status quo, is to demonstrate the appearance of complicity but they resist passive aggressively. Others are overt in their unproductive machinations. On the other side of the spectrum, there are early adopters who welcome the changes and willingly comply with the proposed norms.
When cultural change is announced, there can be diverse responses to it. The CEO or business owner who wants to create a new culture, knows that there will be leaders within the organization who will never comply with the new cultural vision and core values. When this becomes evident, the CEO or business owner will need to make a careful judgement call regarding the suitability of the “old guard” for helping to transform and sustain the new cultural vision in the short- to long-term.
The vision, mission and core values of an organization are important tools for any cultural evolutionary process. Developing existing leaders and getting the right leaders in senior roles are equally critical. These change agents need to be able to detect when there is superficial application of planned initiatives, they need to be able to detect all forms of resistance, they need to have the respect of the team and the courage to hold persons accountable to new patterns of behaviors. It is not enough for the CEO to be respected and trusted, the members of senior and middle management also need to be respected and trusted, otherwise, they can easily neutralize efforts of the well-intentioned CEO or business owner.
As the primary cultural architect, the CEO or business owner needs to be aware of his/her tendencies that contribute to the existing culture especially ones that can create obstacles when in the process of implementing the new cultural vision. It is oftentimes the strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs of the CEO that mold the culture of the organization. As long as his / her unproductive behaviors are blind spots, the CEO is unable to lead authentic change. In instances like this, the desired changes are carefully planned and communicated, but their behavior that fall within the range of their blind spots effectively neutralize any efforts to execute the cultural change plan.
In response to a CEO with a counter-productive blind-spot, employees will communicate their support of the changes because they are in survival mode but based on the CEOs counterproductive, they will be cautious. For instance, if a CEO says he / she wants the organization to be one where employees feel safe to speak up, but every time an employee speaks up, the CEO demolishes the ideas and insights shared by others, so members of the team stop sharing their views and just say what the CEO wants to hear, or nothing at all.
Cultural change is a dynamic and complex process. It requires a CEO or business owner who is self-aware and aware of others, one who is self-regulated and open to constructive feedback and one who is aware of how to communicate effectively in the midst of change. This creates safe space for transformation to occur and within this safe space, a culture can emerge that fully embodies the vision of the CEO or business owner can emerge. Yvette Bethel is a speaker, author, thought leader and CEO at Organizational Soul. She views organizations as living ecosystems that have the potential to operate as a healthy organization, according to their unique characteristics. Yvette offers IFB based consulting, training and tools you can use to build trust, culture, and leaders within your organization. She is the developer of the proprietary IFB methodology that brings this all together.