Culture through the lens of personality: a strengths based approach

7 min read
Culture Strengths Based Approach

Join Culture15’s engagement lead, Claire Holmes, on a whirlwind exploration of the parallels between organisational culture and personality. As a qualified business psychologist, strengths and leadership coach and NLP practitioner, Claire argues that we should approach the development, management and optimisation of culture with the same rigour and attention that we apply to personal development.

What if, rather than seeing culture change as a means to fix something that’s broken, we instead approached it as a hygiene factor; as business as usual? What if we measured, tracked and improved ours by focusing not on what’s wrong or deficient, but on the strengths we can leverage and expand to deliver extraordinary, long-term competitive advantage?

Personality Writ Large’

In her book ‘Patterns of Culture’ written in 1934, Ruth Fulton Benedict observed that “a culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action”, with each culture having characteristics taken from “the great arc of human potentialities”.  

Ruth Fulton Benedict
Ruth Fulton Benedict

In other words, culture is a unique combination of traits, much like personality, with infinite possibilities for expression. And culture in an organisation, like personality, is always going to exist – so I’d like to make the point here that we should seek to proactively understand, develop and optimise it for the task at hand. Culture development is as important as personal development.

We as individuals are intimately connected to the world through our senses – in fact, our personalities only manifest themselves through our interactions and engagement with our environment. If organisational culture is then viewed as an organisation’s ‘personality’, it influences how that organisation responds to its context: to adversity, change, failure and success.

That’s why leaders should look to measure, understand, and proactively develop and manage organisational culture to optimise performance within a changing environment. We should tackle this with the same rigour and attention with which individual/personal development is pursued within organisations. But how do you do that?

Cultural evolution is desirable, possible and inevitable

Today’s hyper-competitive market demands that leaders tap any unused potential, and in most companies, the greatest potential lies in their culture. An intentionally built culture engenders the kind of loyalty and commitment that brings engagement and exceptional profits.

As neuroscientific research develops apace, we learn more and more about the brain’s plasticity and the human capacity for change throughout life. The first thing to acknowledge (and celebrate) is that culture too is dynamic, not static.

Cultures do not exist with a pre-determined set of characteristics that cannot change. It’s just as well, because for culture to act as a tailwind accelerating performance rather than a headwind, it has to constantly evolve.

Change is hard – we’re all resistant to it. Individuals will always seek to maintain homeostasis (a steady, unchanged state) when external factors change, and organisations are no different. The equivalent of mindset is culture, and many organisations suffer from a ‘fixed’ culture.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, change is necessary for survival. Organisations should always be looking to change and adapt, for continued survival and success.

Culture Strengths Based Approach 2 1

As modern genetics reveals, the expression of genes in humans and animals is largely dependent on the environment, on context, on needs. We see the Arctic hare changing its coat colour, moulting and growing new fur, from brown or grey in the summer to white in the winter. This adaptation to a changing environment keeps it camouflaged and protected, allowing its survival and growth. Similarly, just because a person doesn’t show a particular trait doesn’t mean it’s not there, waiting in the wings, ready to show itself when needed. If DNA is the hardware, gene expression is the software that decides how that hardware operates, and the environment can affect the way that software programming works. It’s the same for culture – organisational cultures contain all potential qualities and have the potential to express any human characteristic. The good news is that we have a lot more control over expression of cultural characteristics in organisations than we do with gene expression. With careful intention, measurement and management, organisations can choose exactly what characteristics they wish their culture to hold and can build the desired culture for growth and performance.

One Size does not fit all – your unique culture is your advantage 

I’m a passionate advocate of a strengths-based approach to personal development, an approach rooted in positive psychology that seeks to individualise and identify what is ‘right’ with a person, with a focus on investment in the development of those natural talents for performance.

Using the CliftonStrengthsFinder® psychometric instrument, the way a person is ‘wired’ is identified and discussed as a starting point, to help an individual understand the lens through which they view the world so that they can invest intentionally and intelligently in developing strengths.

Some of the most powerful aspects of this approach I’ve experienced include the use of a common vernacular or language to talk about what a person does best, which leads to increased understanding, acceptance and appreciation of the differences between people.  

Differences are seen as advantages, and there are no ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ traits. We are all unique – successful individuals can (and will) display widely diverse traits and behaviours. What is most important for performance and thriving is to understand the outcomes that are required and align strengths to those desired outcomes. There is, therefore, no universal ‘ideal’ leadership profile.

I think it’s similar with culture. Culture is one of the defining aspects of an organisation that sets it apart even from other organisations in the same industry.

There is no universal “ideal culture” that every organisation should attempt to create. The ideal culture for an organisation is unique to that organisation and depends on the organisation’s unique strategic objectives and context. The culture that is needed to drive innovation in a fintech start-up may be very different to a culture that helps a hotel chain lead in customer service. And a culture that facilitates high performance can take a myriad of forms. Toyota led the automotive industry for years through a culture of continuous improvement and a lean production system; Fitbit has seen sustained success in the burgeoning fitness technology industry through radical transparency around customer data; and ALCOA sent profits soaring with a culture laser-focused on employee safety. Each of these companies has achieved financial and non-financial results over competitors over time, yet all three report markedly different cultures unique to their business strategy and needs.

Culture and Strategy

Culture prevails over everything. Whether it is strategy or tactics, goals or metrics, principles or practices, it is impossible to introduce anything in an organization unless you can find a way for the culture not to reject it. That’s why the primary function of leadership is to nurture the right culture that is aligned with current strategic objectives. No matter how creative or brilliant a new strategy, it will ultimately fail if an organisation’s culture is in conflict with it. Therefore, it’s important for any culture to be aligned with the particular strategic objectives an organisation is pursuing.  

Cultural evolution is measurable and needs measurement

Context and strategic objectives change constantly in our volatile and unpredictable world. Indeed, culture is often cited as a reason for a failed merger, large-scale organisational change, or new strategy, so we can’t afford not to manage it.

And what gets measured gets managed.

So how do we measure culture? Culture is a complex construct, with invisible and visible elements, just as humans are deeply complex, with invisible and visible elements. In both, inner values and beliefs drive external, observable behaviours, and it’s these behaviours (collective behaviours in the case of culture) that can be measured and used to track progress. Just as you can see the Arctic hare’s coat change colour with the seasons, you can observe an organisation’s collective behaviours changing over time.

And coming back to my point on the power of a common language to talk about strengths, let’s not forget the importance of developing a common language for talking about culture – it’s such a subjective topic that a shared vernacular will go a long way in making culture measurement useful and actionable.

Start with the end in mind

Effective personal development and effective culture development require clear framing, with a distinct and actionable starting point and a well-defined endpoint. Without these bookends, there can be no effective prioritisation, no proper data interpretation and no meaningful, focused action on the data gathered.

Much like personal development and performance management rely on tools such as objective setting, 360 feedback and psychometric assessments – identifying goals, assessing current individual behaviours and impact as well as factors that may help or hinder performance – so culture management relies on identifying a target culture (aligned with strategic objectives), assessing what the culture is today, and knowing how that culture supports or hinders performance. This insight can then be used to take purposeful steps to change those beliefs and norms to drive desired behaviours.

Culture work without these bookends is destined to yield disappointing results – in fact, unfocused action relating to culture evolution and management can lead to the same results as taking no action at all.

Not ‘one and done’

No one argues with the need to invest on an ongoing basis in personal development, so why do we not have the same attitude towards culture management?

Creating a strong culture is not a one-and-done objective to achieve. Instead, your culture needs to be regularly cultivated for long-term value. Culture measurement and management shouldn’t only come into the conversation if there is a problem or cultural issue to address.

I would argue that just as continual personal development investment is essential for personal growth, evolution and performance, continual culture investment is essential for organisational growth, evolution and performance – so let’s take the heat out of culture measurement and consider it an essential element of organisational hygiene.

Culture15 is your complete toolkit for tracking culture change. CEOs and Exec Teams at world-leading organisations use Culture15 analytics to ensure success by aligning their culture with what they need to execute their strategy. If you’d like to find out how to define the culture you need, diagnose the culture you have and close the gap, talk to our team.

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