The most powerful force in creating (or maintaining) organizational culture in work-groups is the personality and philosophy of life of the manager who leads the work-group. Traditional approaches to managing conflict in work-groups tend to view all members of a work-group as “equal,” but the influence of the work-group manager must be more heavily weighted because they possess formally delegated authority and are accountable for the work-group’s performance. This organizational principle about the influence of managers needs to be viewed within the context of neurophysiologic research that has identified a part of the human brain (the Amygdala) that produces and senses emotions, and functions like an open-loop system; e.g., our emotional connections to other people (like our boss) help to establish shared moods and emotional responses in entire groups of people. Like an invisible wireless network, work-group members send and receive 93% of their communication through body language and tone of voice. Using another metaphor, the patterns-of-interaction in a work-group are like a stew to which all members contribute, but the manager’s influence is the strongest seasoning. Daniel Goleman argues that employees take their emotional cues from the top – everyone watches the boss. Even when a manager is not highly visible their attitudes affect the moods and emotions of direct reports and this ripples down through the organizational levels like a domino effect creating an emotional tone throughout the organization. Over time, a manager’s ability to resonate the emotions and moods of their employees repeatedly creates either destructive or constructive patterns-of-interaction within a work-group.
For example, Matilda is a sales manager in a medical equipment company. Some days she’s your “buddy” and wants to chat over coffee, and other days she’s a “high-chair tyrant” who pounds on the table in meetings and demoralizes her direct reports with criticism and contempt. “What mood is she in today?” whispers Jack as he gets to the office. “She’s been flip-flopping since I got here,” Jill responds, also in a hushed tone; “one minute she’s asking me how my weekend was, and the next minute she’s hammering me about my sales targets.” “Yea,” Jack laughs, “you can look at her face when she walks through the door in the morning, and tell what kind of day you’re going to have.” In any group of humans, the person in the leadership position has enormous power to create either constructive or destructive patterns-of-interaction, so managers like Matilda are like emotional leaders for Jack, Jill, and the other people who report to them. When Matilda transmits destructive emotional messages, Jack and Jill begin to resonate on that frequency. When she sends constructive emotional messages, they resonate on that frequency. Over time, patterns-of-interaction emerge that are largely on autopilot, where work-group members are drawn into a destructive cycle of conflict and rehash the same issues over and over again. When managers understand how powerfully they can resonate their staff members, and then they use this influence to maintain constructive (rather than destructive) emotional messages, the climate and culture in the work-group will almost always be positive – with much higher levels of work productivity.
In addition to resonating the emotions and moods of group members, the leader’s way of “seeing” their direct reports, structures, systems, culture, customers, suppliers, competitors, and the organization’s politics powerfully scripts work-group members about how they should relate to each other and the larger organization. Howard Gardner claims that the open-loop Amygdala of the human brain gives leaders the ability to “manage meaning” for their work-group by promoting ways to interpret situations, and then suggesting ways for work-group members to emotionally react to these situations. Teaching people how to see themselves, others, and the world is one of the most powerful techniques for building organizational culture, because the purpose of culture (any culture) is to teach people how to see the world.
Bottom Line: If the structures, systems, and culture in an organization do not allow managers to teach work-group members how top managers want them to see the world, other people will teach them according to their own views, interests, and biases of their personality and philosophy of life. This almost always results in misalignment with top managers and destructive conflict.