Organizational Context = Culture

Organizational Context

We began this series with an invitation to think about context in 3 dimensions:

  • for yourself, as an individual, as you live your life (Part 1)
  • for your most important conversations and relationships, and (Part 2)
  • for your organization as a whole.

We’ve already covered individual (personal) and interpersonal context.  Here we will cover organizational context.  (Note:  Additional information may be found in Chapter 7 and Chapter 9 within Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence).

So what, exactly, is meant by organizational context? 

In the most basic sense, organizational context may be understood as the “background” or “environment” (not physical, but very real) in which the organization operates.  And when we speak of background or environment or atmosphere, we are pointing to organizational culture.  So in simple terms, one way of thinking about organizational context involves thinking about organizational culture.  And as Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!”

Traditionally, as we know, organizational context is established when leaders

  1. declare statements of Purpose, Mission, Vision, Values, Standards and Goals and then
  2. go about the ongoing business of building shared understanding of and shared commitment to them.

We claim that one of the most fundamental responsibilities of leadership is to consciously create and sustain organizational context.

We claim that one of the most fundamental responsibilities of leadership is to consciously create and sustain organizational context. Click To Tweet

The following graphic is used to understand any and all organizations, no matter how simple or complex, large or small.  It is used to clarify the relationship between this way of understanding context and our way of understanding content – the actual collaborative action that drives the organization forward day in, day out.

The “roof” and the “foundation” can be understood as the organizational context – who we are, where we’re going, why we’re going there and how we’re going to treat each other along the way.  In the foundation, we find the organization’s “come from” – the solid purpose for being, the mission, the core values, the key standards, value propositions and roles and rules of engagement.  And in the roof, we find the “go to” – the vision pulling us toward the desired future, the goals, the objectives and priorities.

And the middle of the house represents the organizational content – the human beings who are collaborating and communicating and coordinating with each other… and are doing so in a way that’s guided by the foundation and in service to the roof.

Organizational Context and Declarations

Declarations are one of what we understand as fundamental “speech acts.”  Can you see that the roof and the foundation are literally declared into being?  That they are brought forth and manifested and made real by leaders with authority, making declarations?  You and/or your designated teams declare the mission, declare the values, declare the goals.  You declare the standards, the norms, the vision, the priorities.  And if you or those teams have the authority to make those declarations, and you make them – it is so.

As a leader, you speak the roof and the foundation into being.  And then you go about the ongoing job of building shared understanding of these declarations.  For leaders, this is crucial to see and understand.

Leaders are responsible for building and sustaining shared understanding of – and shared commitment to – the declarations that are the organizational “come from” and the organizational “go to.”  There are many ways to accomplish this, of course, from the initial onboarding processes for new employees to regular performance management conversations, weekly staff meetings, monthly departmental meetings, quarterly retreats, bulletin boards in the break rooms, daily huddles, weekly email blasts, blogs, websites and corporate communications.

Shared understanding is the key.  How far down does it go?

As a leader, you are a conversational architect and a conversational engine… and it is through these organizational conversations that the organizational context is created and sustained.

Context (or culture) impacts the degree to which organizations are able to have decentralized decision-making with strategic intent – and given the pace and scale of change today, as well as the impact of having those closest to the action being able to make sound decisions, this is not trivial.  It represents a significant competitive advantage.

A few closing points about declarations and organizational context understood this way:

  • When you (or members of your team) make a declaration, two things are immediately expected by everyone who is aware of the declaration:
    1. that you do indeed have the authority to make such a declaration; and
    2. that you will act consistently with it.
  • If it turns out that people in your organization are going around making declarations they don’t have the authority to make, their public identity will suffer, employees will be confused and other problems will quickly arise.
  • And if leaders make declarations and then do not act consistently with them, they will quickly earn the public identity of “hypocrite” and we can expect many additional negative cultural consequences to follow.
  • Let’s say an organization’s leadership team has a strategic planning retreat over the weekend, and in this retreat, a key value is changed (in the foundation) and a key goal is replaced (in the roof).  Question:  Is it possible that an employee’s behavior that did not raise an eyebrow last Friday may show up as completely “wrong” this Monday?  Yes, of course!  It happens all the time, and it’s because while the employee’s behavior didn’t change – the context in which the behavior occurred has changed.  And this has an immediate and obvious impact on meaning.  And meaning matters.
  • Purposeful creation of context = purposeful shaping of how individual and collective behaviors will be interpreted; that is, what these behaviors mean.  And this, as we know, is not trivial.
  • Just because you don’t purposefully and consciously create an organizational context, does that mean you don’t have one?  No, of course not.  You’ve got one, no matter what.  It just may or may not be one that’s conducive to the results you are seeking to achieve.
  • Leaders are responsible for producing quantitative and qualitative results, with and through people.  And the continual cultivation of workplace context is one of the most important qualitative results on virtually all successful leaders’ agendas.

Application:  Organizational Context

Think about the “house” drawing and a version of it that can represent your organization.  Share these questions with your leadership team, and convene a conversation to start the new year in which you discuss:

  1. To what extent has the leadership team clearly declared the roof (vision, long- and short-term goals, priorities, future direction) and the foundation (fundamental purpose and reason for being, mission, values, standards)?
  2. How clearly are these understood at the leadership team level?
  3. To what extent are leaders’ behaviors consistent with and aligned with these?
  4. How far down into the organization has this understanding been “cascaded?”  In other words, how deeply do employees have shared understanding of and shared commitment to these?
  5. What are the most important onboarding and ongoing conversations that need to be invented and sustained in order to ensure high degrees of understanding and alignment?

What organizational context are you creating?


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