Businesses aspire to have "great culture" in order to attract candidates and ensure a happy and productive workplace — but what is it and how can it be achieved?

Darren Levy, consultant at Human Synergistics International, says organisational culture is something that's defined by the collective.

"It is the expected behaviours and the 'way we do things around here'."

He says, though, that while we all own the culture of our organisation, leaders have a disproportionate impact.

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"Our research shows that effective leadership is most highly correlated to constructive cultures. Leaders all cast a shadow that can either act like a black hole and suck the light and energy out of people, or encourage people to step up and do their best work."

Human Synergistics' New Zealand Conference on Culture and Leadership, to be held around the country this month, will look at how leadership defines the culture and future success of enterprises. Speakers will include Olympic gold medallist Rob Waddell, executive director of Learning Resources at the University of Canterbury Alex Hanlon, Mercury's GM of Digital Services Kevin Angland, and business leader Janine Smith.

Levy says effective cultures have a clearly articulated mission focused on the end user. Employees are involved and empowered to do their best work in meaningful jobs designed to have autonomy and variety. They're encouraged to work with others and are given the capacity to see something from start to finish.

"As well, communication, goal setting and HR practices should be seamless. Constructive leadership helps team members solve problems and improve relationships, and it will show employees how to treat others with respect and consider the diverse needs of the team and the organisation."

Respect from employees is created through leaders developing trusting relationships with co-workers, says Levy.

"If the purpose of leadership is 'to create the environment for people to be their best' then it seems pretty simple to me ... great leaders focus their time, energy and diaries on making that happen. We not only need leaders who can create effective relationships, they also need to be sense-makers to help teams to have the focus, tools, resources and motivation they need to deliver on their goals."

He notes that sometimes people are unlucky in their working lives to only be exposed to less effective leaders.

"Poor behaviours then become passed on to others, which can spread toxic leadership behaviours across an organisation and between organisations. This can look like leaders who are too concerned with how they're seen, are afraid to make decisions for fear of offending others, are always negative and against things, or leaders who set unrealistically high goals that results in their teams avoiding even trying."

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The good news is these behaviours can be un-learned just as quickly as they were learned.

"If leaders are able to see where improvement is required," says Levy, "using a 360-degree diagnostic such as the Human Synergistics' Life Styles Inventory can be helpful in identifying these opportunities. Then, with some effort and persistence, leaders can shift their behaviours and performance considerably."

Levy says technology can have a surprisingly large impact on organisational culture. While it is supposed to support organisations to more effectively carry out their work, he says too often the technology becomes the work and can get in the way of delivering better performance.

"But it's not the technology itself that leads to these outcomes, it's how we implement it and decide to work with each other. Tech such as video conferencing can be super-helpful in bringing dispersed team members together. Yet if they do not have clear expectations of behaviour — either in the digital or physical worlds — the outcomes will be poor. We need to define how we want to work, and keep each other honest through effective feedback. If we stay focused on the goal, tech can definitely help to achieve an even better culture."

Human Synergistics International Conference dates

• Christchurch — September 18

• Wellington — September 19

• Auckland — September 21