Culture Still Driven by Leadership During Crisis Times

Group of doctors in clinic
Aug 25, 2020

Culture Still Driven by Leadership During Crisis Times

Written by Impact Advisors

Category: Change Management

Whether your desired culture is one where employees compete with each other in a dog-eat-dog world or you prefer to have a work environment where information and successes are freely shared among groups, workplace culture is a strong component in meeting strategic goals and driving results.

Culture is defined as the norms and values an organization holds in regard that shape the identity of its members. This in turn drives both acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and actions within the organization. As humans, we have an innate need to “belong” and through conforming to the identities and acceptable behaviors, we contribute to maintaining the culture we are in. However, culture has complexities. What one sees on the surface may only be the tip of the iceberg; organizational politics, personal relationships, conflicts, and new people with previously different norms are all drivers of culture within our organizations. Subcultures may also be present based on values unrelated to work such as religion, politics, nationality, group memberships, or simple cliques such as “friends of Karen” or “people wronged by Karen.” These subcultures, employee turnover, and organizational challenges and successes make culture an ever-shifting bed of sand. For this reason, managing and shaping culture is an important part of leadership.

Two of the biggest drivers that shape our organization culture are how our leaders act in a crisis and the subsequent telling of those stories. Most organizations do not lack in crises to navigate, whether it be unplanned downtimes, urgent department needs, or significant issues when taking a project live.

Our workforce looks to our leadership for direction on the norms. They are in the unique position to both model as well as either reward or discourage behaviors. Another reason we have leaders is to have someone to rely upon when the more complex issues arise – when we are beyond our own comfort zones and need mentorship. A crisis puts leaders in a position where all eyes are on how they act. Watching our leaders in the times when we are most ill-equipped to self-manage provides the examples we will follow. For organizations with great leaders, their cultural values are more strongly cemented in place. In organizations where leadership is not strong, the crisis-driven actions of leaders will erode the culture. Note that in workplaces with weak leadership, informal leaders can be the drivers to set cultural norms and values.

When a crisis is over, the stories – both good and bad – that are told will cement the culture in place. Gossip and stories of how the leader acted, what he/she said, or how the team either pulled together or scattered to the winds will further define how one should act in the future and what is acceptable within your culture. As much as we would like to believe that we are driven by science and evidence, testimonials are powerful influences in our lives. As humans, we still rely upon oral accounts of history even in the age where much is documented on paper or digitally in word or video. The next time you are in a group, tell everyone you have a stomachache and ask them what they all think is the best solution. I guarantee you will get answers ranging from prescription medications to home remedies for how to feel better based on what has worked for that person in the past. We want to share our experiences. When we have our next crisis, we will all have our stories of what to do that worked, what not to do, who got promoted, and who dropped the ball. We are all shaping culture based on our stories.

We all have opinions on how a good or even a great culture is defined. We typically want to feel safe, we want to feel valued, and we want to understand the expectations, especially if there is also a degree of accountability that goes with those expectations. Groysberg et al. explores the cultural attributes that are important in different industries in Harvard Business Review Jan-Feb 2018. In healthcare, the profile of desirable culture most often has results, caring, purpose, order, and learning as the top five attributes. Other attributes include safety, enjoyment, and authority. Read the scenarios below to see how your leaders react or how you yourself react as a leader for these attributes. If you are a leader, remember that your actions are not just affecting yourself, not just affecting the situation at hand, but are shaping how your staff will react in the future to similar situations and in turn, how they will mentor those who come up through the ranks below them.


When a project, revenue number, performance improvement initiative, or some other marker misses a deadline or has significant issues, does your leader:
a. Blame others or deny the issue exists?
b. Take responsibility and look to provide solutions?

When a project, revenue number, performance improvement initiative, or some other marker does not meet its goals, does your leader:
a. Manipulate the numbers to make them look better or hide the information?
b. Transparently share the numbers as they are and look at all the factors that may have impacted the numbers to find future changes to course correct?


When a teammate has significant personal issues that affect work life, does your leader:
a. Defend the rules and focus on how personal issues should not affect work life
b. Show compassion or even rally the rest of the team to make accommodations for that teammate?

When an issue is brought to your leader, does he/she:
a. React immediately and rush to a solution?
b. Listen and understand the issue, pull in relevant parties/sides, then make an informed decision on direction?


Does your leader:
a. Focus only on meeting specific target numbers within your department?
b. Share the larger picture of how your work fits within the mission as a whole for the organization and value that work?


With regard to what is expected of you as a worker:
a. Do the rules change day by day or are the rules applied differently to different members of your team?
b. Does your leader treat everyone fairly (notice this choice of words – I did not say “equally”) and hold people accountable to set expectations?


When a staff member makes a mistake or errs in judgement that leads to a failure, does your leader:
a. Look for ways to punish that staff member?
b. Look for ways to use that mistake as a teaching moment and a steppingstone to preventing the same error in the future?

When a previous decision comes into question because of new information, does your leader:
a. Hold fast to the previous decision and ignore or discount the new information?
b. Analyze the new information and communicate a change in direction if needed?


With day-to-day work, does your leader:
a. Need to be involved in every decision and all aspects of your work?
b. Give you the space to make decisions within your areas of expertise and solve problems with your own solutions?

When your team needs to rally together to solve a complex problem, does your leader:
a. Manage by giving directives and deadlines?
b. Participate as an equal team member to leverage his/her strengths in finding a solution?


When in a meeting and you need to ask a question, does your leader:
a. Ridicule questions or direct you to read a document to understand the answer?
b. Take the time to listen and understand the question, then answer it with a purpose of ensuring all team members who might have had the same question understand the answer or direction?


When in a meeting, do teammates:
a. Remain serious at all times and/or use depreciating comments to compete with one another?
b. Take time to laugh and find humor in their interactions?

Does your leader:
a. Restrict office du00e9cor or prohibit celebrations on “company time?”
b. Encourage personal and/or professional celebrations in the office?

Think about how the last workplace crisis was resolved and how your leaders or you yourself as a leader reacted. Do you see more “b-type” responses in your workplace? These represent actions and behaviors that reinforce each of the cultural attributes. If your workplace sees more responses represented by the “a” answers, those attributes may not be valued or if they are, there is opportunity to adjust and strengthen the leadership.