To help us address these questions, we turn to a paper** by some Stanford and UC Berkeley academics. They review the relevant literature and present their own research and findings. This paper is not a great fit with nuclear power operations but some of the authors' observations and findings are useful. One might think there would be ample materials on this important topic but “only a very few studies have actually explored the interrelationships among leadership, culture and performance.” (p. 33)
Leaders and Culture
Leaders can be described by different personality types. Note this does not focus on specific behavior, e.g., how they make decisions, but the attributes of each personality type certainly imply the kinds of behavior that can reasonably be expected. The authors contend “. . . the myriad of potential personality and value constructs can be reliably captured by five essential personality constructs, the so-called Big Five or the Five Factor Model . . .” (p. 6) You have all been exposed to the Big 5, or a similar, taxonomy. An individual may exhibit attributes from more than one type but can be ultimately be classified as primarily representative of one specific type. The five types are listed below, with a few selected attributes for each.
- Agreeableness (Cooperative, Compromising, Compassionate, Trusting)
- Conscientiousness (Orderly, Reliable, Achievement oriented, Self-disciplined, Deliberate, Cautious)
- Extraversion (Gregarious, Assertive, Energy, Optimistic)
- Neuroticism (Negative affect, Anxious, Impulsive, Hostile, Insecure)
- Openness to Experience (Insightful, Challenge convention, Autonomous, Resourceful)
Leaders can affect culture and later we'll see that some personality types are associated with specific types of organizational culture. “While not definitive, the evidence suggests that personality as manifested in values and behavior is associated with leadership at the CEO level and that these leader attributes may affect the culture of the organization, although the specific form of these relationships is not clear.” (p. 10) “. . . senior leaders, because of their salience, responsibility, authority and presumed status, have a disproportionate impact on culture, . . .” (p. 11)
Culture and Organizational Performance
Let's begin with a conclusion: “One of the most important yet least understood questions is how organizational culture relates to organizational performance” (p. 11)
To support their research model, the authors describe a framework, similar to the Big 5 for personality, for summarizing organizational cultures. The Organizational Culture Profile (OCP) features seven types of culture, listed below with a few selected attributes for each.
- Adaptability (Willing to experiment, Taking initiative, Risk taking, Innovative)
- Collaborative (Team-oriented, Cooperative, Supportive, Low levels of conflict)
- Customer-oriented (Listening to customers, Being market driven)
- Detail-oriented (Being precise, Emphasizing quality, Being analytical)
- Integrity (High ethical standards, Being honest)
- Results-Oriented (High expectations for performance, Achievement oriented, Not easy going)
- Transparency (Putting the organization’s goals before the unit, Sharing information freely)
The authors gathered and analyzed data on a group of high-technology firms: CEO personalities based on the Big 5 types, cultural descriptions using the OCP, and performance data. Firm performance was based on financial metrics, firm reputation (an intangible asset) and employee attitudes.*** (p. 23-24)
“[T]he results reveal a number of significant relationships between CEO personality and firm culture, . . . CEOs who were more extraverted (gregarious, assertive, active) had cultures that were more results-oriented. . . . CEOs who were more conscientious (orderly, disciplined, achievement-oriented) had cultures that were more detail-oriented . . . CEOs who were higher on openness to experience (ready to challenge convention, imaginative, willing to try new activities) [were] more likely to have cultures that emphasized adaptability. (p. 26)
“Cultures that were rated as more adaptable, results-oriented and detail-oriented were seen more positively by their employees. Firms that emphasized adaptability and were more detail-oriented were also more admired by industry observers.” (p. 28)
In sum, the linkage between leadership and performance is far from clear. But “consistent patterns of [CEO] behavior shape interpretations of what’s important [values] and how to behave. . . . Other research has shown that a CEO’s personality may affect choices of strategy and structure.” (p. 31)
Relevance to Nuclear Operations
As mentioned in the introduction, this paper is not a great fit with the nuclear industry. The authors' research focuses on high technologically companies, there is nothing SC-specific and their financial performance metrics (more important to firms in highly competitive industries) are more robust than their non-financial measures. Safety performance is not mentioned.
But their framework stimulates us to ask important questions. For example, based on the research results, what type of CNO would you select for a plant with safety performance problems? How about one facing significant economic challenges? Or one where things are running smoothly? Based on the OCP, what types of culture would be most supportive of a strong SC? Would any types be inconsistent with a strong SC? How would you categorize your organization's culture?
The authors suggest that “Senior leaders may want to consider developing the behaviors that cultivate the most useful culture for their firm, even if these behaviors do not come naturally to them.” (p. 35) Is that desirable or practical for your CNO?
The biggest challenge to obtaining generalizable results, which the authors recognize, is that so many driving factors are situation-specific, i.e., dependent on a firm's industry, competitive position and relative performance. They also recognize a possible weakness in linear causality, i.e., the leadership → culture → performance logic may not be one-way. In our systems view, we'd say there are likely feedback loops, two-way influence flows and additional relevant variables in the overall model of the organization.
The linear (Newtonian) viewpoint promoted by INPO suggests that culture is mostly (solely?) created by senior executives. If only it were that easy. Such a view “runs counter to the idea that culture is a social construct created by many individuals and their behavioral patterns.” (p. 10) We believe culture, including SC, is an emergent organizational property created by the integration of top-down activities with organizational history, long-serving employees, and strongly held beliefs and values, including the organization's “real” priorities. In other words, SC is a result of the functioning over time of the socio-technical system. In our view, a CNO can heavily influence, but not unilaterally define, organizational culture including SC.
* As another example of INPO's position, a recent presentation by an INPO staffer ends with an Ed Schein quote: “...the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture...” The quote is from Schein's Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1985), p. 2. The presentation was A. Daniels, “How to Continuously Improve Cultural Traits for the Management of Safety,” IAEA International Experts’ Meeting on Human and Organizational Factors in Nuclear Safety in the Light of the Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Vienna May 21-24, 2013.
** C. O’Reilly, D. Caldwell, J. Chatman and B. Doerr, “The Promise and Problems of Organizational Culture: CEO Personality, Culture, and Firm Performance” Working paper (2012). Retrieved July 22, 2013. To enhance readability, in-line citations have been removed from quotes.
*** The authors report “Several studies show that culture is associated with employee attitudes . . . ” (p. 14)