Custodial Ownership Revisited

photo of a leader listening intently to an employeeIn an earlier blog, I wrote:

In one sense, everyone in the organization is responsible for a healthy and productive culture…. But leaders have custodial power over organizational culture. 

A trusted colleague pushed back on that last sentence. Did I really mean “power”? Might that imply that only leaders can control how the culture gets created?

The short answer is no, I did not mean “power.” I meant “ownership.” And, ideally, that ownership is not a permanent state. That’s why I use the word “custodial,” as in custody of a child. It doesn’t last forever. The point is to enable the child — the team, the culture — to take care of itself.

Often the way leaders create culture on purpose by giving others permission to create culture on purpose. Doublespeak? No. In organizations where examination of culture doesn’t happen naturally, leaders who surface culture as an issue grant permission for others to talk about it.

If they don’t, culture can quickly become an undiscussable topic. Then no one — not leaders, not staff — can improve the culture. How can they, if they can’t even talk about it?

Leaders at all levels hold custodial ownership over the culture of their own domains. That’s as true of mid-level managers as of C-suite execs. The mid-level people can’t directly change the corporate culture, but they can change the culture of their team. If they’re successful, the change is likely to spread.

Custodial ownership means keeping the culture of the team or the organization healthy and productive. That means, first, making culture a discussable topic. 

Start by checking in with team members to ask what’s working and what isn’t. Make it OK for them to share what stands in the way of their productivity. Inquire about the good and the bad, the pros and the cons, the pluses and the minuses.

If all you’re getting is good news, find a way to ask what’s missing. Try questions like these:

  • What’s the first thing you’d change, if you had the resources?
  • What might go wrong with this approach?
  • What are we missing here?
  • What red flags do you see?
  • How can we make this even better?

If you don’t get answers to these questions, don’t assume there are no answers. People may be expressing fear without being able to voice it. If people actually express fear, that’s good for you to know! It shows that the culture is pretty far down the road to being toxic.

More often, people show they are fearful by choosing their words carefully, getting quiet, or completely disengaging from topics related to culture.

This is your opportunity to open and repair channels of communication. Start by offering a couple of your own observations about what you’d change, what red flags you notice, what might be going wrong. Your honesty might help to loosen the logjam.

If you make opposition to the status quo a normal part of culture conversations, you can address issues in the early stages, when they’re easy to fix, rather than allowing them to build and multiply.

What you can do today

Take an honest look at the level of responsibility you take for the culture of your team. Thinking back over the past two weeks, how often did you take the nodding heads at face value? How often did you probe more deeply?

Initiate one conversation about culture this week with one key team member whom you trust and find easy to work with. Try one or more of the questions above. Practice listening in a way that accepts the team member’s feedback as useful data toward improvement.

Questions for discussion

  1. What’s the difference, for leaders, between power and ownership? What might each look like in practice?
  2. Can you think of another way to express leaders’ responsibility for culture besides “custodial ownership”? In my earlier blog, I offered swimming pool metaphors for this responsibility. Can you offer a metaphor that resonates for you?
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