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Leadership and culture change

Leadership has a key role in determining culture, but all of us can have an influence on the culture in which we work.

We hear in our daily work many comments about the culture of the workplace. At times these can be fairly negative comments, but do we stop and ask ourselves how we may or may not contribute to some aspects of that culture?

Culture can often be difficult to define but we do need to remember that it is not imposed; it is the ideas, values, customs and social behaviours that become natural in an environment.

More formally, organisational culture is the set of values, concepts, perceptions and practices which create the sense of an organisation.

Management and leadership can and do have “a key role in determining culture but all of us will have an influence on the local culture within which we work.

Richard Seel confirms that culture is not static. Culture is something we are constantly creating, affirming and expressing. He identifies the emergence of culture through interactions and the subsequent development of a paradigm.

The paradigm is the filter through which we perceive our work environment; evolving from the set of core beliefs which result from the multiplicity of conversations, establishing and maintaining culture.

When entering into an organisation for the first time it can sometimes be very clear what the accepted and expected behaviours are – that is ‘the way we do things around here’ and individuals can experience pressure to conform to these accepted ways of behaving.

These are outward signs of the prevailing culture formed through the various interactions of those who may have been in place for some time. Sometimes the prevailing culture is not positive and a new person can find it very difficult to challenge some of the external elements of the culture.

In reality, it is not the individual elements that need change alone it is the way these have come together as the paradigm through which the world is being viewed. In order to bring about any change Seel says, we are to look internally; this paradigm is at the heart of culture.

To bring about cultural change within an organisation, or even more broadly as a profession, can be difficult to foster. It relies upon the breakdown of routine, change in the way we interact and most of all, effective and supportive leadership.

When facing the potential difficulties to engage people in practice change, we should not underestimate nursing leadership’s ability to champion culture shifts. In saying this though we need to recognise that we all have opportunities to display leadership and demonstrate through our own interactions the culture that we wish to see.

While leaders have a key role in setting this paradigm and cementing culture they cannot do it without others being engaged in the necessary change processes.

Cultures take considerable time to be cemented and changing culture will not happen quickly but, nurse leaders and those who work with them need to adopt an attitude of self-criticality and evoke change little-by-little rather than to apply large unsustainable external changes.

The engagement of those who are impacted by the change is important and their involvement will be critical if long-term sustainable change in the culture is to be achieved. Cultures do not change just because someone says they should. As Seel has said, it emerges from the conversations and interactions that we all engage in.

Effective leadership is key to the adoption of a good organisational culture as effective leaders will engage with those they work with and ensure that all are valued.

Michael Useem identified the lessons to be learnt when developing strong and effective leadership; prepare leadership foundations early, prepare others to make effective decisions, exercise consistent leadership, develop allies among those who work for you, build teams that ensure a high performance under stress and design your organisation to foster leadership capabilities.

These build greater connectivity between people, remove barriers and promote adaptability to change. They also help to influence the culture that will emerge as time passes.

Change should always be anticipated and welcomed. As nurses we all have the opportunity to influence culture change through our interactions with each other if we are prepared to step out of our comfort zone and experience a level of discomfort.

We need to recognise that rather than waiting for someone else to ‘create’ a new culture we can all have a role in the culture within which we work – each of us every day can actively make a decision about how we will interact and work with other people.

It is important in our profession to remember those who have led us well; colleagues, managers, and even the times when you have demonstrated excellent leadership yourself.

These reflections enable us to pinpoint attributes that allow for the constant regeneration of nursing in Australia. We must take responsibility for the transformation and growth individually, as an organisation, and finally as a profession.

Adjunct professor Debra Thoms is chief executive of the Australian College of Nursing.

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3 comments

  1. where can I find a fully referenced version of this article???

  2. Is it possible for me to also obtain a referenced version of this article?
    [email protected]

    • Thank you for your comment, Jamie. A referenced version has now been sent to your address.

      Kind regards,
      The Nursing Review Team

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