Leadership watches where the cows walk © Mikhail Dudarev | Dreamstime.com

Leadership watches where the cows walk
© Mikhail Dudarev | Dreamstime.com

Organisational Culture: Fourth Question Leaders Watch Where the Cows Walk?

Organisational culture is defined as ‘The way we do things around here’ (Deal and Kennedy, 1982 – buy a copy here). Some organisational cultures enhance positive work places and positive work outcomes. Others can be toxic both to the people in them and the business outcomes produced. When the way things are done doesn’t reflect the values you are seeking to develop the issue may be in the organisational culture. Organisational culture is reflected in the natural, intuitive ways things are done. Sometimes things just don’t seem right and it is hard to put your finger on exactly why.

While the behaviour of team members contributes to organisational culture, organisational culture often guides team members’ behaviour.

When you can’t quite understand why, despite your leadership efforts, behaviours are not changing to reflect organisational values look at the underlying culture. Behaviour patterns within an organisation are key indicators of organisational culture. Often, in spite of a leader’s best efforts, behavioural patterns in team members can be very difficult to change.

Pathways of organisational culture © Martin Konopka | Dreamstime.com

Pathways of organisational culture
© Martin Konopka | Dreamstime.com

One useful metaphor to help visualise organisational culture is a network of pathways. In this metaphor the paths represent behaviours which, in turn, reflect the organisational values people are operating by. Organisational pathways are established through elements such as clear vision and goals, agreed professional standards, organisational values and beliefs, policies and procedures, and clear lines of responsibility and communication.

In the process of planning and building two school campuses I learned it pays to wait to see where the children actually wear a path in the grass before building a path.

Don’t build a path until you see where the cows walk.

(I mean no disrespect to children by using the metaphor of cows – the presence of a narrow worn pathway in an area of grass always makes me think of the paths cows create as the meander through the fields).

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, developed revolutionary cattle handling facilities for yards and abattoirs after she researched ‘mooing’ as evidence of distress in cattle. In 2010, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people. (Watch her inspirational TED talk here). She identified that cattle approached water holes in circular patterns. When they were allowed to walk in these patterns they were not distressed and very compliant. Her handling facilities were designed in similar patterns which mirrored, as closely as possible, these natural patterns. They minimised sudden distractions and allowed the cattle to move as naturally as possible. The outcomes for cattle yards and abattoirs which have adapted Temple’s designs has been significantly lower numbers of losses, improvements in processing times, and improvements in meat quality due to reduced bruising and muscle tension caused by stress.

This principle also often applies to organizational decision making. Whenever possible, a leader’s role can be made substantially easier if they take the opportunity to watch, or at least think through, where the cows walk, or will walk, first. Patterns of human behaviour both inform organisational culture and are influenced by it. Patterns of behaviour, like children or cows, wear a pathway in organisational culture which become the trails others will use without thinking.

If team members are not using the pathways you believe they should be using it is possible that vision, roles, lines of communication, expected standards etc. are not clear and/or not agreed upon and shared.

The most obvious way to change the paths people use is to build fences, plant garden beds in the way you don’t want them to go, or create rules and policies which force them to take a different approach to a problem. My experience is that if I want people to choose another pathway they need to understand that the new pathway will still get them to where they want to go and add value in the process. The first question I should ask is ‘what is it I did or did not do that let them think it was okay to do things that way?’

Changing organisational culture doesn’t always involve creating new pathways for people to follow. More often than not it involves renewing shared vision, clarifying roles, developing an understanding of why people do things the way they do them, guiding them to the discovery of what the changes might be that will achieve the purpose with even better results for all involved.

Creating policies and procedures to enforce the desired organisational culture will, more often than not, actually be counter-productive. It will lead to unhelpful conflict and a power struggle. Watch where the cows walk, think through why they walk that way, work as closely with the pathways they choose as you can or help them discover there is a better way for themselves.


  • Every organisation has a culture
  • Organisational culture is ‘the way we do things around here’.
  • If you want to change organisational culture you have to change the natural, intuitive ways things are done.
  • Don’t build a path before you watch where the cows walk. Before you put policies and procedures in place to ‘control’ the behaviour of staff members observe what they do now and try to undertsnad it.
  • Where possible, make the smallest changes to processes necessary for the behaviour to reflect organisational values.

Additional Resources

How Do You Change An Organisational Culture?
How To Change Your Culture.
How To Change Your Organisations Culture