How Leadership Can Undermine Culture

Note: This posting is based on my weekly “Thank God It’s Monday” that helps you and your company thrive!

This week’s focus: leadership and culture

I didn’t expect to awaken this past Thursday to seeing Santa Clara University on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

Father Engh, University President, made headlines by announcing his decision to drop elective abortion coverage for all University employees. Some would say, “C’mon, Dave–this is a private Jesuit university of practicing Roman Catholics–Father Engh is correct in adopting this position.” And, “some” would be right.

Here’s the problem. The decision was made unilaterally without consulting with the employees. The announcement came as a shock to the University’s 1,600 employees. Does Father Engh really want to shock the institution and culture of the University? One faculty member offered:

“Santa Clara has a stated commitment to shared governance, inclusiveness, openness and so forth,” said history professor Nancy Unger. “This is such a powerful violation of all that Santa Clara says that it stands for.”

Apparently, there will be discussions with the stakeholders about this change after the fact. Too late.

As is often the case, it’s often not the policy change that offends as much as it is the way in which the decision is communicated.

Father Engh is clearly seizing the opportunity to align the University’s position with the Affordable Care Act. The ACA requires that birth control be made available. It doesn’t require that an employer offer abortion coverage. The University is complying with the both the law and teachings of the church.

While it works logically, as a practical matter, the manner in which this change was announced has undermined the University’s culture.

It doesn’t take much for leadership to undermine the culture of any organization–it only requires taking action that is inconsistent with cultural norms. Trust can be made very fragile very quickly. And, that is what has happened here.

[Full Disclosure: I’m a member of the Leadership Board for Santa Clara University’s College of Arts and Sciences. My views are my own.]

Thought for the week:

“I am in awe every day of the power of words. The ones we say, the ones we omit, the ability of elegantly assembled ones to move us.” – Amber Naslund via Twitter
What do you think? I welcome your comments!

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting

© 2013 Gardner & Associates Consulting  All Rights Reserved

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