We know there is a deep connection between culture and organizational outcomes. When culture is done right, it unleashes tremendous energy, harnessing a diverse set of talents towards shared organizational goals. But a culture that is hostile and dysfunctional cripples the organization’s capacity and drives away talent.
While each and every employee plays a role in creating an organization’s culture, it’s the leadership that has the power to make or break the workplace culture. Why? Because “leaders bring the weather.” The things leaders say and do signal to the entire organization what behaviors are permitted, and their impact on employees is so great that the behavior of company leaders is often mimicked throughout an organization.
Consider former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, whose aggressive, win-at-all-costs leadership style created an ethically hazy and toxic culture, resulting in hundreds of complaints and lawsuits against Uber by employees and customers alike. Or the demanding, authoritarian leadership of former Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn, charged with aggravated fraud by German prosecutors for deceiving regulators about VW’s diesel exhaust levels. Under his reign, the company culture was marked by an extreme deference to authority, intimidation and fear, and a lack of tolerance for dissent.
While the above are flagrant and scandalous examples of leadership gone awry, organizational culture can also be eroded by subtle, seemingly insignificant behaviors, off-the-cuff comments, and even nonverbal behaviors. Leaders don’t have to yell, scream, or engage in unethical behavior to undermine culture. In fact, most of what constitutes culture is tacit and subtle. It comes down to two questions: how does it feel, and how do people relate to each other?