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How does Leadership affect Culture?

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Culture is a multi-faceted concept – it involves lifestyles, habits, beliefs, and values. How can leaders change and shape culture in organisations and communities? What can we do to manage across national cultures as leaders and human beings?

The HEAD Foundation’s Senior Adviser Professor Henrik Bresman reflected on some of these questions in a public lecture held on 23 March to explore the idea of cultural relations and promote a better understanding of what culture entails.

In highlighting the importance of culture, Professor Bresman cited management thinker Peter Drucker’s observation that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” One can plan a perfect strategy in leading an organisation, but that strategy won’t mean anything if we lack a culture conducive to the changes the organisation tries to make.

Thus, everyone needs to have a common understanding about culture. In order to do so, a look into the history and practice of certain groups of people is necessary.

Professor Bresman then introduced the organizational culture model, designed by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Edgar Schein. In this model, culture exists at three levels – Observable Artefacts (such as dress codes), Stated Values (for instance, company mottos) and Basic Assumptions.

Often, artefacts are easy to identify and react to, but are superficial when observed in isolation.

Conversely, deeply held assumptions about what is fair, right or wrong are hard to understand, yet are the most important because they essentially drive culture along. “We don’t just want to change how people dress or what they say … we want to change their whole mind-set,” said Professor Bresman.

In other words, we need to change the basic assumptions if we really want to enforce a change in culture and behaviour.

Professor Bresman observed that to change culture, we need to change both the small things (dress codes) and big things (like organisational structure) to get to the basic assumptions. In addition, both small and big things must “relentlessly” point in the same direction over time for cultural change to take hold.

On navigating across different national cultures, Professor Bresman highlighted two “easy” ways to think about culture that one should avoid – taking culture too seriously and not taking it seriously at all.

For the former, while we are influenced by our culture, there are still individual differences within national culture that we must learn to ascertain. For the latter, the right way is to figure out how other peoples’ cultures are different from us in order to truly understand them.

Professor Bresman then rounded off the lecture by touching on the important point of stereotyping. Despite its negative connotations, cultural stereotypes are useful in allowing us to gain an insight into someone’s culture, insofar as they are utilised cautiously and accurately.

Excerpts of Professor Bresman’s lecture can be viewed here.

Highlights “How does Leadership affect Culture?”