Should Leaders Challenge an Organization's Culture?

BY Kathy Crosett
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Leaders who take the top position in an organization face a challenge. They must decide if they can
make more of an impact on the bottom line by adopting their style to the existing culture or if they should maintain their leadership style even if it is far different from the established culture. A team of researchers led by Chad Hartnell studied this topic and published the  ‘paradoxical’ findings in Applied Psychology.

Hartnell and his team focused on the technology industry for their research project. As discussed by Dahlia Bazzaz, who summarized the findings in a Wall Street Journal post, researchers segmented leaders and organizations as either task-​focused or relationship-​focused. In some cases, relationship-​focused leaders enter a task-​focused organization. This was the case for Alan Mulally at Ford. To improve Ford’s culture, he insisted that employees and managers respect one another’s opinions and contributions during meetings. This change was far different from the long-​established culture of a management hierarchy that handed down task-​based orders through the chain of command. In other cases, the research team realized that relationship-​focused organizations benefited from leadership driven by task-​focused CEOs.

Hartnell’s team found that CEO styles which are at odds with established corporate cultures can drive improved returns on assets in the range of 1% to 4%. Hartnell called these findings ‘paradoxical’ as many experts believe CEOs should create culture.

If your leadership style doesn’t naturally fit into the culture at the company you’ve just joined, don’t rush to change your behavior. Take time to determine what’s missing in the current organization and what it will need to achieve success. Then decide how far you’ll go in making changes. Researchers reported that implementing small changes over time results in the best outcome.