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If you view a successful organization as a well-tuned machine, then culture is the oil that keeps all the parts running in harmony; if you think of an organization as a family, then culture is the familial bond that holds everyone together; if you consider an organization to be more like a living organism, then culture is the lifeblood that nourishes the organism and encourages it to grow. Less tangible and more difficult to define than strategy, structure or processes, culture is often misunderstood, and attempts to influence it are consequently misdirected or ineffectual. This is not surprising: an organization’s culture appears to form organically, almost alchemically, from a congregation of seemingly endless ingredients that includes people, environment, industry, organization size, location, and leadership. So, trying to affect something so nebulous and arbitrary may seem an exercise in luck – fire the arrow in the dark and hope it hits a target. But research shows that this is only partially true. Much can be done to redirect culture, with the most positive returns occurring when initiatives involve group engagements with leaders.

In their groundbreaking work on organizational culture, Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng emphasize the importance of understanding and harnessing the power of culture. And, despite the fact that many leaders feel confounded by it, culture can, in fact, be managed and directed. But leadership is key. In the researchers’ words:

‘For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required, and can deftly influence the process.’

The leader’s potential for positive influence is both assisted and hampered by traditional organizational structures. The existence of any hierarchy – no matter how flat – dictates that the higher up the hierarchy, the greater the individual’s sphere of influence. This halo effect promises a ripple of positive results as a senior leader consciously and intelligently influences cultural evolution. The same, however, is true if the leader does nothing, or actively contributes to the creation of a toxic organizational culture. Furthermore, the departmental structure of most organizations has a high potential to result in the development of silo mentality, a sure way to entrench organizational inefficiencies and poor morale. As Brent Gleeson points out, ‘The silo mindset does not appear accidentally nor is it a coincidence that most organizations struggle with interdepartmental turf wars.’ More often than not, silos are the consequence of a conflicted leadership team.

Seen in the right light, these types of conflict are healthy – they suggest that the organization and its leadership have a diversity of approaches to optimizing performance. But the results of the conflict depend heavily on how it is handled. It is normally at this point that someone suggests the involvement of an outside coach, consultant or facilitator. Such an individual has the benefit of an objective view, unmired by company politics and historical baggage. In approaching the resolution of the leadership conflict, he should perform a detailed analysis of the root causes of the misalignment, then craft a resolution plan. This will usually involve 1-on-1 work with the relevant leaders – critical for unearthing and engaging with personal obstacles or weaknesses.

But, the most radical change can be found in group coaching sessions. The more people one adds to an equation the more complicated that equation becomes. No arguing with Jim Morrison: ‘people are strange’. It is obviously from these peculiarities and differences that conflicts arise, but it is also within them that the solutions to those conflicts can be found. Group coaching utilizes the latent intelligence in diversity to accelerate movement towards a unified leadership team. Working with small groups, the coach’s role is less direct than in 1-on-1 arrangements, requiring a more facilitative approach that invites peer learning and the emergence of group wisdom. After helping to build the group container, the coach can ‘get out of the way’ more, which allows group participants greater freedom to express themselves, access new thinking, and engage with authenticity. The coach’s skill is in knowing when to coach and when to step back, when to guide and when to let the individuals guide each other. Not all coaches enjoy this type of work, which is why an accomplished group coach can be such an asset.

Group coaching is not a replacement for individual coaching – they satisfy quite different objectives – but it has unique benefits: it is a useful way to leverage a coach’s time and resources, it often results in greater team trust and, because the stakeholders are usually together in a room, problems can be identified and addressed as they arise. More and more often, though, participants are not in the same room. Like 1-on-1 coaching, group coaching can be conducted remotely, via phone or the internet. And the results are powerful, especially in working with leaders where positive development can take place faster and more intensely, shifting an entire organizational culture.

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash