If you’ve seen the recent pictures of the hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico, you realize that water has immense power. It rushes everywhere and subsumes everything under its wake.

In the business world, the organizational culture represents the water. Regardless of what people, policy and strategy say, culture will always win. In the words of Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture will always drown out anything that isn’t in alignment with how it exists within the organization. Therefore, it’s vital you understand the culture of the environment you are seeking to have greater influence.

In Charles Handy’s seminal model on organization culture, he outlines four cultures than can exist within an organization. Let’s take a look at the first two and see how these cultures intersect with influence so you can increase yours within them.

The Power Culture

Charles Handy describes power culture as a spider’s web with the all-important spider sitting in the center. The key to this organization is the spider in the middle, surrounded by ever-widening circles of intimates and influence. The closer you are to the spider, the more influence you have. Organizations that operate in the power culture have fast response times, but they are heavily dependent on people at the center of the organization. The powerful CEO must be successful in driving the organization, and in her or his exit, succession of the next leader becomes the key factor to continued success.

If your organization has this culture, you will attract people who like power and understand the political logistics necessary to rise to the top. These political logistics to gain influence in the power culture include controlling resources. The organizations can never grow too large in scope because the “center” cannot expand in scope as delegation is limited.

A power culture is individually based more than team or committee based. Often power cultures value the ends over the means required to arrive at results. Many who work in this environment don’t mind it being a bit abrasive and tough, and their time there can be accompanied by high turnover and poor morale as members fail to meet the standard or simply leave the competitiveness. Anticipation is key to surviving in a power culture. You must know what those in power are expecting and meet those expectations in terms of performance. If you can hit the expectation bulls-eye, this organization can be a powerful force, and workers can feel quite successful. But if the bulls-eye is misunderstood or is constantly moving, disaster can ensue.

In its most unhealthy state, a power culture is a dictatorship, though this is not endemic to a power culture organization. History is full of successful power culture organizations including Apple in the Steve Jobs era. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the fashion magazine mogul in the movie The Devil Wears Prada is a pop-culture depiction of a power culture.

If you want to succeed in this culture, expect a great deal of jockeying to get closer to the center of the influence/power web. If you do succeed, you probably thrive on competition and getting things done while knocking down any obstacles in your way.

The Role Culture

The best picture of the role culture is a Roman building supported by columns and beams. Think of each column as a role which must be in place for the success of the organization. Individuals occupy a role, and if they leave the organization, a new individual must come in to fulfill that role. Often, the well-run role culture is seen as a healthy institutional type organization, but if it is unhealthy, it can turn into a red tape-filled bureaucracy quickly.

A role culture is often an organization of highly niched specialists overseen by a small senior management. Rules, procedures and formal standards are the measuring stick of both how inter-organizational relationships and disagreements are solved. Being able to change the rules and procedures is the chief way influence is established in a role culture.

The University is a classic role based culture model. With a small Board of Regents and department deans, specialist professors occupy the “columns” in each department. Other examples would include federal government institutions and large banks. Stable is the keyword often used to describe a role culture organization, and “don’t rock the boat” is the operative mantra. The challenge for this type of institution is the ability to adapt quickly and responsively to change. Think of this culture as more of a battleship than a PT boat. These organizations cannot and will not turn on a dime, but once they gain momentum, they are a force with which to be reckoned.

Pay and rising influence are clearly measured, and rarely does someone skip a step to the top. In the federal government, for example, pay is measured according to clearly defined standards of whether one is an E-3 or and E-7.

You will tend to succeed in this type of culture if you prefer well-defined jobs with explicit expectations. You also will need to not mind working under heavily structured guidelines, systems and processes. If you like to buck the system, this culture is definitely not for you.

How to Increase Your Influence in the First Two Cultures

Understanding the culture of your organization will be key to helping you increase your influence within it.

In a power culture, you must get closer to the center of the web. You must be noticed as a difference maker. Your temptation will be to do so by any means necessary. It is important you don’t sell your soul and break your own ethical code in the process of climbing the power web. The career road is littered with people who sold out, and then realized they couldn’t live with themselves in such a state.

In a role culture, influence is leveraged by having the ability to shape the systems, process and procedures of the organization. Since role cultures actually live and operate by these rules, changing them changes the organization. The unhealthy temptation in a role culture is to become so beholden to the rules and regulations that common sense and people’s feelings get discarded in the name of maintaining the protocol.

In the next article we’ll take a look at Charles Handy’s two remaining cultures and learn how they intersect with influence.


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From regional manager to international executive with quadruple the pay, Karen Keller’s unique blueprint carefully outlined the step-by-step process for creating high-impact influence and let me know when I was being influenced in a way that didn’t serve me.
Lloyd Moore
Global Director Supplier Quality & Development - Lear Corporation – South Carolina