Nurturing your organisational culture
‘What is the culture of the organisation?’ A familiar question with a, seemingly harmless disposition. But is it? Is there an underlying tension in the mind of this executive exploring a career option with another employer? Is there an implication on the employer?
Culture in an organisation should be productivity and happiness enabling. That’s the job of culture in an organisation.
Culture can have brisk adaptive capability only if it is design-led. Keeping an organisation together and going great when the chips are down is probably the ultimate test for culture capability. But how many corporate leaders have a conscious design for culture building? How much of it is left to chance in today’s corporate world?
That culture has to be driven top down is easier said than done. There is greater sanctity than what meets the eye in this ‘top down’ recommendation for culture building. Many in leadership positions restrict themselves to playing only a very ‘managerial’ functional head’s role. Some of them need to be reminded about the leadership element in their role. The culprit could well be the high pressure job compounded by an overwhelming transaction paradigm regularly seen at the workplace these days. Or, the subject of organisation culture performance and audit never makes it to the balanced scorecard of the CEO. Excuse or lapse, either way there is a compelling need to transcend it.
Like logistics management, the compelling feature of the organism called ‘organisation’ is that it requires the system-wide co-ordination of several agencies to make anything meaningful to happen. ‘Culture’ is one such subject that is the sum total of co-ordinated effort. It has to be managed by design. When ‘culture’ is not what we desire, it is an indication that the belief system is not being reinforced by supporting measures. There is often a disconnect between what we believe and what we end up doing.
More than often it is not ‘what you say but what they hear’, not ‘what you show but what they see’, and not ‘what you believe but what they experience’ that leads to culture formation.
Perhaps, a good way to begin would be by articulating what we want organisational culture to achieve for us; it’s a little like saying unless I know the kind of crop I want to grow, how will I know what’s the right kind of soil I need and how to get it?
The following are common desirables in most workplaces. But do they exist? Are these easy to come by?
In every organisation, ‘leadership’ is a closely watched species across the length and breadth of the organisation. Many leaders fail to sense the ‘watchful eyes’ all around them and therefore also miss the opportunity to leverage it. Leadership style demonstrated by the CEO and his first level reportees will percolate whether we like it or not, –– people tend to imbibe it unconsciously and they pass on the same to their subordinates!
Do not expect to achieve service excellence if the overwhelming ‘flavour’ in every meeting and review is only ‘how much did we make or collect?’
Nature of policies
The nature if policies, systems ans processes in the organisation –– are they enablers or stumbling blocks? –– What is the basic assumption or presumption behind a system or policy? Sad to say, the people element is often not thought through many a time when systems and processes are being conceptualized. It overlooks the fact that Policies and Systems are ‘powerful teachers’ -they teach you whether you’ve got to bend, stretch, hide or reveal etc. ‘They’ generally do not recognize emotions or context but has a ‘cunning ability’ to shape the behavior of constituents. Hence we have to be careful of what we unleash. A conscious design and systematic nurturing are not options but integral to culture building. Do not expect ‘team-working’ if your rewards and recognition policies and mechanisms are only for individual efforts.
Leadership is always watched and heard by employees, whether solicited or not.
That, which the leadership is frequently heard as saying and the behaviour which leadership is constantly seen rewarding or encouraging, tends to get interpreted and concluded as a norm. It gets made into the equivalent of the biblical ‘golden calf’, and embraced as the ‘book of what works or how to survive in this organization.’ Dominant behaviour in an organisation is a combined reflection of what leadership stands for and is perceived to be standing for -both! Unchecked perceptions feed culture. Do not expect transparency if informers and one to one ‘deals’ and ‘obligation inspiring’ styles of leadership are encouraged.
Culture building is the joint responsibility of the CEO and every one of his functional heads. The team cannot internalise beliefs on a prescriptive mode. This team needs to invest in trust building first.
It involves hours and hours of sharing pieces from each others life forgetting titles and letting go of baggage from the past.
I once had the privilege of working for an organisation, where the leadership team made it a point to have lunch together as long as they were in office. It was the purpose, mission and camaraderie that were born from these lunch time sharing that also powered this organisation’s journey from red to black in 24 months.
Do those in leadership roles have a conscious vision of the culture that they wish to nurture? Do they actively anchor the process of culture building in the organisation? Do they practice what they preach?
Is there a review and measure for culture efficacy?
Everything begins with a design. The list of initiatives can be endless but, perhaps a good beginning for any kind of culture building initiative could be the active sponsorship of a few major elements in organisational development which can prove to be major differentiators by the CEO and his lead team;
What do we stand for as an organisation and which emotional dimension binds employees as a collective force in favour of the organization?
Accessibility of leadership
This not just about having an ‘open door policy’. Strangely the straight and simple exercise of engaging a far more forthcoming junior and middle management community as a barometer for gauging cultural issues does not happen in more than a few organizations. Consequently we see the rise of in-house power brokers and gamesters who play conduits for self gain.
It is time to read ‘JDs’ as job designs and not job descriptions. Purpose, stretch, challenge and empowerment are factored in a job design. No one ever joins an organisation to be branded as a ‘poor performer’ or ‘dead wood’. Yet we see such stereotyping happening more often than ever in many organisation. It is important to get to the source of this issue because left unattended, the credibility of certain organisational processes are coming under a scanner in the eyes of the employees. Over time it impacts the attitude and esteem levels of affected employees. The days of recruiting ‘servants’ are over. These days we recruit partners and team members. Many managers are yet to make this attitudinal shift.
Policies & regulations
These are necessary and possibly well meaning. But they are also blind, deaf and un-empathetic in their black and white form. Like all measures and controls, they have the power to deliver a death blow to cultural aspirations and shape an alternate, unsolicited organisational behaviour. But how many instances have we come across where the efficacy of people related policies have been audited against behavioural dimensions?
Leaders nurture ‘culture’. They leverage culture as a ‘sling’ that will give greater impetus to their initiatives. ‘Culture’ in turn nurtures leaders for the future.
If the future is too remote to be concerned about for those in the increasingly ‘here and now’ paradigm, then here are the ‘here and now’ implications; high attrition, low employee dependability, weak talent attraction and employer brand erosion! Compensation is short term motivation just in case there is a view that money is everything and should offset the weak culture. The distinguishing feature of ‘Culture’ as against the other variables in an organization is its inability to respond to re-configure should change be required as quickly as economic conditions would change. Such a situation can present a massive strain on the progress or consolidation needs of the organisation.
Perception is reality. Do a dip-stick survey and the length of the immediate list of organisations where ‘culture’ is suspect could be alarming.
Bottom-line, organisation culture has to be designed, managed, periodically calibrated and overhauled. It is too serious to be outsourced to the HR Department or anyone else. And, it is more than some statistics thrown up by a regular ‘best employer survey’. And of course, construction of culture begins at the top, in the CEO’s office!
The author is a practicing HR professional with over 20 years of Corporate experience.