Power Culture

By: John Grinnell
CEO Grinnell Leadership: Behavioral Sciences Consultants

Our client, a 50-year-old financial institution had been lead with a top-down, overly autocratic style of leadership for years. Eventually the organization fell into a state of entropy as it had built suboptimal vertical pleasing behavior and horizontal silos. Due to this sluggish approach they couldn’t respond fast enough to their customers’ changing needs and expectations. A new CEO was hired and he initiated two years of very thoughtful mapping and restructuring of the organization’s talent. His executive team then engaged Grinnell Leadership to prepare the institution and its now younger VP level for rapid growth.

We developed a customized mid-level extended 10-month program we call the Leadership Decathlon ® that helped build silo-busting relationships and focused on the practice of “leading leaders.” In other words, the flow of information horizontally between departments was optimized and these younger leaders were prepared to manage larger scopes of responsibility in alignment with the organizational mission and values. The foresight of the CEO and his executives paid off as they, indeed, entered record growth and profitability over the past three years. It pays to focus leadership development upon the leadership system which controls the intangible culture.

The Power of Culture

The psychological-social organizational culture provides stability, predictability and a mental structure for human beings to function within. It is the hidden dimension of all businesses; the intangible that drives the tangible. It is the basis of an organizations ability to get things done well in a timely manner. Through mostly tacit (unconscious) permissions, taboos and expectations it controls human behavior. And, it is dictatorial unless understood and examined. It derives its power through the use of advocacy for ideas and certain types of behavior that are aligned with its programming and uses alienation to reduce the power of those who do not fit its mold. In all organizations some artifacts of this cultural programming remain and they aren’t leading to success.

Its power is constrained through a multitude of tactical behaviors, such as withholding information, talking behind people’s backs (gossip) as well as overly political behavior for fear of retribution. Another common off-purpose behavior is seeing critical feedback as an attack and ego-defending one’s position before fully understanding another’s point of view. Common is a norm for indirectly punishing people for making mistakes when trying new innovative approaches that don’t work well enough at first try. Associated with this pattern of behavior are organizations that don’t have a deep enough feeling of real “accountability” that rapidly moves beyond finger-pointing and blaming to problemsolving. For some cultures the recognition of mutual responsibility to the organizational mission and a spirit of true collaboration are challenging when silos frustrate efficiencies by blocking quality and timely information flow and support between units. The leadership system that controls these cultural dictates can and must be adjusted to address these “viruses” that slow organizational success. The lost opportunity cost, off quality and financial burden due to these off-purpose behaviors are too large to ignore.

Culture is strengthened over time through the selection, promotion and development of leaders within the leadership system. Since leaders “carry the culture,” it is through their behavioral insight and conscious choice that leaders can take responsibility to change their own minds to change their leadership behavior to alter the culture. We call these special leaders “mission actualized,” as they have been developed to first “see” intangible culture and then have the courage to make aligned decisions and take committed action when others can’t or will not. The good news is that most managers can learn to do this with proper instruction systematically done. The question for you is, “What modifications in behavior and culture does leadership need to make for your organization to more rapidly reach its fullest potential?”


  • Educate your leaders in being able to “see” culture. Find an in-depth experiential program that highlights the social-psychological-anthropological basis of organizations. The best are run by facilitators educated in the Behavioral Sciences. Our monthly open-enrollment LJS® 4 day seminar in Wrightsville Beach NC will fill this need well.
  • When undertaking a change initiative, be sure to develop and have teams commit to a few (seven or fewer) behavioral working agreements with some type of feedback loop as an accountability process systematically done over time.
  • Create contrast--In addition to highlighting you core values, also point out the behaviors that demonstrate those values. We like to have our clients highlight “dos’ and don’t do” behaviors.
  • Recognize and reward behavioral alignment in public settings in addition to the typical recognition for financial results or technical or scientific achievement.
  • Push without pushing. See mistakes and errors as opportunities to coach, not punish. Human behavior changes slowly over time with sustained focus and optimal pressure.
  • You may need to hire and outside behavioral sciences consulting firm that can help people learn to see the intangible culture within the context of their work challenges. This approach will embed the awareness and skill into the fabric of your culture for use well into the future.