Leadership behind Organizational Culture

As a final year student at the job-hunting stage, I often ponder on the type of environment that I would love to work in. After some research and self-analysis using OB materials, I came to realize that an open and people-centred culture is what I feel most attracted to.

I am sure we were all impressed by the ordinary heroes of the Taj discussed in class earlier this semester. As mentioned in class, culture is a set of values, norms, guiding beliefs and understandings that is shared by members of an organization and taught to new members as the correct way to think, feel and behave. It is the unwritten, feeling of the organization. When new recruits join an organization to be part of the family, they discover, observe, pick up, and imitate – I would say culture emerges out of social interactions and is adapted through experiential learning. Hence, it may have variation no matter how hard a company strive to achieve homogeneity, due to different interpretation and culture diffusion.

This links to my next favorite topic – leadership. In my opinion, a strong culture is often built by a leader who has great charisma, possesses empathy, and is able to relate to people’s emotions – regardless of the vision that is being articulated. For example, one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, who was able to preach nationalism, change the mentality of Germans back then and shape the entire nation. The success of building such strong nation culture was due to his exertion of transformational leadership. Despite his ruthless behaviour, Hitler was no doubt a great orator who was able to deliver powerful speeches and capture the emotions of his audience, even at the national level.

In the present, one of my favourite leaders is Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, who practices servant leadership. Southwest Airlines is almost a replicate of Taj hotel but in different industry, with executives and employees constantly striving to improve their service, culture, and to generate greater customer loyalty. During his tenure as CEO of Southwest, Kelleher’s colourful personality built a corporate culture that made Southwest employees “well known for taking themselves lightly – often singing in-flight announcements to the tune of popular theme songs – but their jobs seriously”. Kelleher gained much respect in the company – and in the industry itself – as an empathetic leader who had made Southwest the major U.S. airline it is today with a people-centred culture. The values, beliefs and norms still exist even today as according to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.”

Here’s a speech by Kelleher on people as the business of people 🙂


This concludes my link between culture and leadership – I believe that a decent pay might be enough to get people to work on time, but beyond the pay it is the inspiring purpose communicated to people that encourages them to go the extra mile.  A person leading a business, an organization, or even a country needs to emphasize not just on nuts and bolts, techniques and standards, but on culture.

A culture can be created formally using symbols, rules, songs, uniforms, slogans, etc., but true leaders would be able to transcend his vision to the people around and make it felt deep down their hearts. Employees who are inspired and driven will possess desired behaviour, regardless of management’s presence. Case study on the Taj incident is a good demonstration on how employees react towards unplanned situations under the influence of strong company culture. Formal system may collapse due when chaos occur, and this is when the informal side of culture steps up to guide employees’ response and drive them towards the company’s ultimate direction.

To add in a little bit more since formal structure of culture was mentioned…

I think companies should take note of culture and emotions when implementing changes in the organizations. Emotions are triggered as employees go through the processes of organizational transformation. Attitudes to existing culture also affects their responses towards change. If values throughout the organization are congruent, employees tend to react to change more positively. People become more engaged with the change when empathy is shown.

I was blessed with the opportunity to work in a start-up whereby the culture is immensely strong. I could feel it on my first day of work – the CEO gathered everyone for a pep talk, everyone was super committed and had strong beliefs in the company’s vision, etc. I think this is why my CEO had faith in us and was able to leave us on our own so often for business trips. And I hope that I would be able to work in a company with similar culture too!

Stop the Struggle – Emotions at Work

“Every day we live in two worlds – the private life and the professional working life.”

Emotional Labour, an employee’s expression of organizationally desired emotions during interpersonal transactions at work), was mainly associated with occupations revolving around customer services, but today, in the complex working environment when relationships and networks are vital for businesses, I believe that everyone in the working world has to be aware of it and know how to manage his or her emotions.

When the topic on emotional labour was brought up in class, I was intrigued, mainly due to stories I heard from a friend who is an air stewardess. In fact, a number of recent incidents involving irrational flight passengers such as emergency exit opened for “fresh air”, air stewardess scalded with boiling hot noodle water, and verbal harassment, etc. demonstrates the woes of flight attendants. Air India alone recorded 387 instances of passengers behaving indecently with cabin crew in the past five years, according to data provided by the national carrier in response to an RTI query.

“Not all passengers are difficult, but if you’re unlucky you’d find yourself tending to very rude and demanding passengers. And yet, I have to force a smile upon my face – even when dealing with the most unreasonable customers ever – it just drives me crazy all the time,” said my friend. (Mind you, she had quite a temper during our high school times.)

This is a demonstration of surface acting discussed in class, whereby appropriate emotions are displayed by employees who do not actually feel it, and it may be dangerous when it develops to deep acting. By trying too hard to address emotional mismatch and to fill in the gap between actual and fake emotions, it could bring about emotional dissonance and high level of stress.

The question is, is it possible to incorporate emotions into work? How can we achieve the right balance between corporate management and human interaction? While researching on this topic, I stumbled across this video “Emotions at Work”, featuring a speech by Stéphanie Mitrano at a Tedx event.

According to Mitrano, emotions are usually not tolerated in work. Even a minor occasional unintentional outbreak of temper and stress could cause you to potentially lose your customers forever, and you have to answer to your superiors. A good employee is commonly seen as one who is detached from his feelings, has high tolerance to stress, etc., and “these seems similar to the traits of a psychopath”. To me, skills to adopt traits like these by suppressing one’s emotions and putting on deep acting is doable and can be trained – but it drains one’s energy and will lead to burnout in the long run, as humans are not born to be completely insensitive.

To trace back to two years ago, when my grandfather passed away in the midst of my finals and job interviews, I vividly remembered myself breaking down after one of my interviews as it was really tough having to mask my sorrow and continue working as if nothing had affected my emotions. This is why I can relate to what Prof described in class – emotions can accumulate and be harmful. As mentioned by Mitrano in the video as well, instead of encouraging this “psychopathic” behaviour and stopping employees from being the humans they are, manager should focus on understanding the way employees behave due to emotions. And the first step would be to grasp the first dimension of EQ: self-awareness.

Mitrano proposed that we all be the managers of our own emotions – by accepting the existence of it and using it to help achieve a desirable working environment.  How? This is an additional but interesting learning point that I would like to share as it is very applicable to most of us.

Firstly, emotions such as anger can be converted into positive energy to fight for something for something we believe in. This, I believe, is what drives change and henceforth leads to innovation.

Secondly, emotions can be handy when resolving conflicts. “Sending signals that you’re hurt will show the other party that you’re sincere – and it tells them that you’re not an enemy but also a human just like them; People stop fighting when they sense that they are hurting someone.” This helps to tackle disagreements in a more rational way. However, I think one should to bear in mind that being over emotional would not be helpful but provide a channel for the other party to tap on this “weakness” and abuse it.

Thirdly, emotions can be used, by entrepreneurs especially, to pitch a concept by telling a story that people can relate to. It is a very influential technique to win over people’s heart.

Let us put the “human” element back at the heart of operations

The key point of my study here is to get everyone thinking about your emotions, and whether you’re aware of how you feel. It is okay to let out and communicate your feelings at work or school, in a moderate way. It can be just a simple gesture, e.g. genuinely greeting and replying to a colleague’s greeting when you go to work in the morning, instead of muttering an insincere “how are you” without really meaning it. Be empathetic and observe more on how your colleagues behave before making judgement and connecting with them. I believe that showing little down to zero emotion at professional work is a requirement at times, but knowing internally that we are truly human and finding the right balance between corporate management and human interaction, is the key to one aspect of success in work life. Once you get to understand your own emotions and learn how to convert it into a positive attitude and energy, you will be less likely to suffer from emotional labor.

So… How are you feeling today? 🙂


Sue Yuin