Organizational Culture in Local Government

Tenet 4 of the Texas City Management Association Code of Ethics states that the chief function of local government is to serve the best interests of all people. This principle translates into a Herculean, all-encompassing, and challenging directive. Certainly, local government exists to serve, but the level of service stipulated by this tenet must be defined, assessed, and cultivated. Outcomes of extraordinary service can be seen in some tangibles, such as award-winning budgets, public works infrastructure projects, economic development recruitment, and fire department safety outreach programs. However, other outcomes are intangible and more difficult to quantify and qualify. So how do leaders ensure that their organizations are serving the interest of all people? They can only achieve this by focusing on the organizational culture. Volumes have been written about citizen involvement, public finance and budgets, infrastructure, economic development, human resources, and the multitude of other responsibilities that a public manager must take on. As important as each of those disciplines may be, even the best-laid plans will come up short when the organization is mired in a culture of mediocrity and entitlement. Local government leadership comes with an inescapable responsibility to create an organizational culture that is characterized by service, thoughtful stewardship, responsiveness, and loyalty to our calling.

 The Perils of Public Sector Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is crucial for local government leaders to consider. Leadership in the public sector is particularly challenging, because the culture of any government organization has the reputation of being susceptible to complacency and mediocrity. Dr. Karl Albrecht, management consultant and author, cautions leaders in government organizations. “Organizations that have no natural threats to their existence, such as government agencies, universities, and publicly funded operations, typically evolve into cultures of complacency. In a typical government agency, it’s more important not to be wrong than it is to be right.” Albrecht’s observations remind us to pay attention to the culture of our organizations. Public sector organizations don’t usually go out of business. Despite blatant ineffectiveness, government organizations will continue to exist, robbing citizens of resources, service, and public confidence.

The Optimum Public Sector Culture

One of the leading books about the optimum organizational culture is Elliot Jaques’ Requite Organization: A Total System for Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. The book refers to what Jaques terms the Requisite Organization, and throughout the book, he develops his theme that a Requisite Organization will enjoy the following distinct traits:  mutual trust, fairness and justice for all employees, recognition of individual worth, openness and honesty, and specific employee behaviors such as integrity, commitment, reliability, initiative, and cooperation.

These characteristics are remarkably similar to the optimum culture described by Dr. Roger Harrison, author and renowned organizational change consultant. Dr. Harrison describes the desired organizational culture as one characterized by a transcendent level of consciousness, and he likens organizations to people who experience varying levels of consciousness. Harrison contends that these levels of consciousness are manifested by certain human behaviors, which influence the culture and are influenced by the culture. In healthy organizations, employees tend to think on a higher plane, and the results are behaviors that maximize the talent and efforts of each employee towards a common purpose.  Personal interactions and individual contributions become interdependent and selfless. Local government leaders’ goal is to attain a transcendent level of organizational consciousness, which Dr. Harrison describes as having a culture of meaning. People join for the purpose of giving rather than to get. In this type of organization people aren’t easily managed by the application of incentives or punishment, because they operate according to high principles and ethical standards. They do this because it feels right to do so. The challenge for any public manager is to lift the organization upwards so the citizens we serve will reap the rewards as we maximize their resources. A transcendent organization also yields attitudes and behaviors that will help sustain a healthy culture.

Leadership that Shapes the Organizational Culture

We should expect that fundamentally changing an organization’s culture is a long-term endeavor, usually taking several years. Organizations tend to maintain their status quo. One researcher describes it in this way: “In the final analysis, change sticks only when it becomes, ‘the way we do things around here,’ when it seeps into the very bloodstream of the work unit or corporate body. Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are always subject to degradation as soon as the pressures associated with change are removed.” (Kotter 14)

Establishing trust and reducing fear in the workplace will greatly help public managers shape the organizational culture. Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich coauthored a book entitled, Driving Fear out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust High-Performance Organization. They state, “We see fear as an increasingly visible background phenomenon that undermines the commitment, motivation, and confidence of people at work. When fear is reduced and trust is enhanced, people naturally become more committed to their work and are more enthusiastic about their organizations…Today leaders cannot afford to lose information or creative ideas that may help their organizations face the future. They especially cannot afford to lose the energies and talents of employees to fear and low morale. In order to help their organizations accomplish needed changes and help people get past their fears, leaders must create open workplaces where everyone can be candid about her or his experiences, concerns, ideas, and hopes.”

Dr. Stephen M.R. Covey describes trust or the lack of trust in an organization as either a tax or a dividend. Covey explains the byproduct of high trust in an organization. “When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier, elevating and improving every dimension of your organization and your life. In a company, high trust materially improves communication, collaboration, execution, innovation, strategy, engagement, partnering, and relationships with all stakeholders.” Covey also explains that trust is the by-product of integrity and competence, and insists that both are vital components of trust. Competence is critical, because employees tend not to trust a leader who doesn’t seem to have what it takes to get the job done. When a leader seems to know the way, others are much more apt to follow.

Another notable author, Jim Collins, supports the others’ research as he describes the characteristics of a level 5 leader. Level 5 leaders are selfless and humble; two attributes which naturally foster trust.  In one of his many articles describing level 5 leaders, Collins mentions trust. “I sense an increasing societal unease with the emergence of celebrity leaders who care more about themselves than they do about the institutions for which they are responsible. Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions – whether in the corporate or social sectors – to advance their own interests”.  Collins’ theory of level 5 leadership reminds us that leaders are effective when they are approachable, authentic, humble, and trustworthy.

Trust enables an organization to pull back the curtain and confront whatever is found lurking. Effective leaders have the personal courage and humility to hear the truth about themselves and the ugly side of the organization. Often there are destructive assumptions, habits, and fears that beset the organizational culture, but change is unlikely when leaders reject the truth. Problems in the organization must be called out and addressed head on. The evidence is overwhelming: leaders must focus on reducing fear and establishing trust to contend with the “unspeakables” in the organization.

Organizational Behavior or Human Behavior?

One could make the case that organizational behavior is nothing more than the sum of all of its parts: a melting pot of human behaviors, unique interactions, and individual values and perceptions that collectively create the organizational culture. People are at the center of it all, and there are no shortcuts to leading people. Shaping the organizational culture is painstaking work and can only be accomplished by a very intentional effort to establish interpersonal relationships with employees at all levels of the organization. The goal is to displace fear and suspicion with trust and candid dialogue. Leaders must communicate a clear vision and core values for the organization and seek out opportunities each day for interpersonal exchanges, which convey the values and purpose for the organization. It won’t be easy in many organizations where the culture is a thicket of diverse values, fear, suspicion, apathy, and unidentified motives. Simply stated, we aim to influence individual behavior again and again until the desired behavior becomes the norm. Wading through the quagmire of personalities and aligning them to achieve a common purpose is a challenge for any leader, but we must revere the fact that within those individuals lie the talent and the potential of the organization. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, written around 340 BC., conveys that the ethical role of a leader is not to enhance his or her own power, but to create conditions under which followers can achieve their potential. We are stewards of the human potential in our organizations. All the best to each of you as you lead your organizations toward that transcendent culture!

Works Cited

Albrecht, Karl, Ph.D. The Power of Minds at Work: Organizational Intelligence in Action. New York: American Management Association AMACOM, 2003. Print.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 340 BC.

Collins.  “Level 5 Leadership: The Antithesis of Egocentric Celebrity.” (September-October 2001): n. pag. Web. 25 February 2012.

Covey, Stephen M.R. The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. Print.

Harrison, Roger, Ph.D. “A Theory of Organization Culture as a Guide to Practice: A Personal Odyssey.” Freeland, Washington: Harrison Associates, 2009. Print.

Jaques, Elliot. Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. London: Rutledge, 2006. Print.

Kotter. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996. Print.

Ryan and Oestreich. Driving Fear out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust Organization. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1998. Print.

(Article submitted by Daniel Presley, Assistant City Manager, City of Webster. If you have interesting news or helpful topics to share, please submit them to Kim Pendergraft at Please keep the information to fewer than 750 words.)