How would you rate your culture?

Focusing on the culture of an organisation is often regarded as a ‘soft’ area to manage.  In some places it doesn’t even form part of the vocabulary or the agenda.  However, the culture of an organisation can decipher whether it is successful or not.

You can tell when there’s a great culture in an organisation because you feel it as soon as you walk through the door; that energy, passion and focus on what the organisation is all about.  It’s because there are systems and processes in place to make the business tick in a way that everyone understands.  Each person knows what is required of them to achieve the goal.  But the opposite can happen when these systems aren’t in place – they’re called toxic cultures.  And they don’t just happen.  They have destructive leaders in place who encourage a set of vulnerable followers.

See if there are areas in your business where you may need to focus your time and energy so that you build a culture that links to your strategy and is one that you’d like to see replicated with your customers.

You will find more about these ideas in the main body of the article, but these bullet points will provide you with a quick overview.

  • Create clarity of how you want your brand to be perceived internally and externally and then set about defining it
  • Build a consistent service experience for all your customers by linking the way you do things from policy writing to how you recruit people
  • Be mindful of how your culture needs to adapt as you recruit more people – structures and systems need to be introduced to maintain the focus
  • Spend time creating departments that working harmoniously with one another
  • Remember that ‘what gets measured gets done’ so be clear about what messages you are sending when you set up reward and recognition schemes
  • When there’s little communication happening in an organisation, the employees will fill the void with their interpretation of what’s going on – make sure that your communication systems stop the need for a grapevine
  • Focus is always on the leaders as they give permission to the rest of the organisation about how they should act and behave – make sure your leaders are role modelling the right behaviours for your brand

Having read the article about the purported culture at Goldman Sachs, it made me think long and hard about the leaders that Greg Smith, the whistle blower, was talking about.  Are they consciously aware of the impact they have on the people around them or have they done it for so long that they no longer see a problem in behaving such away?

In the past, I’ve witnessed some of these behaviours.  The sad thing was that these people had garnered a following of ‘like’ types who formed a kind of clique within the organisation.  It was like an ‘unwritten’ ground rule that you had to behave in this way whenever you were in the company of this leadership team and not raise your head above the parapet to challenge it as you may then be seen as an outcast.  And there you had the basis for a toxic culture with destructive leaders, vulnerable followers and a conducive environment for it all to happen.

However, there is the other side of the coin that says these leaders may have been unaware of what they were doing to themselves and others.  They may have been excellent leaders in the past and promoted well tried and tested methods to bring out the best in their people for the good of the organisation.  However, we all know that the very behaviours and attributes that lead to success may, when carried out in excess, result in failures of leadership and in particular the dysfunctional leadership behaviour.  Because we’re trained or conditioned in a certain way, each of us see what we want to see and this leads us to dismiss, devalue or deny what doesn’t fit into our map of the world.  As they were praised in the past for doing certain things, they now do this to excess because they see their behaviour as being the right way to create large profits for their organisation.

So what can we all do to make sure that we create healthy organisational cultures?

1.       Don’t underestimate the importance of defining your culture

As I carried out my training to become an accredited user of the Culture Gauge, I remember one phrase being mentioned; Culture eats strategy for breakfast.  This was like music to my ears.  For so many years I’d felt as if I was banging my head against a brick wall with people saying that the culture of the organisation was the ‘pink and fluffy’ bit.  Why couldn’t they see that if we got the culture right, the rest of the results would follow suit?   When culture and business strategy is aligned, staff become more engaged and performance increases.

Dr Linda Ford describes culture as ‘the invisible and powerful force that gently nudges people to do things in the way the organisation does it’.  How many times have you joined a company and tried to do things in a certain way and been told that ‘actually we don’t work like that, you’ll get more buy in if you do it this way instead?

Creating clarity of how you want your people to do things in the organisation and then revisiting it from time to time will make sure that you create a consistent approach as well as positive customer experience.  This doesn’t mean that you have people acting as clones, but you have a workforce who is focused on what the business needs to achieve as well as the way they should do it.

2.       Create transparency in everything you do

It’s no good having a rule for one activity and another rule for the rest of the organisation.  For a culture to live and breathe everything within it has to be linked.  Decision making, policies and procedures, the way you treat your staff and customers must all relate back to how you want to be perceived.  When you stop doing this you will find that there are pockets of people working in ways that incongruent to the rest of the organisation and therefore creating an inconsistent experience to your customers of what you are about.

I’ve found one of the easiest ways to do this is to draw your organisation as a picture and show how everything is linked to one another.  I worked with some organisations where we’ve started off with a model such as the EFQM quality model which has helped identify specific areas of the organisation and then added the additional elements that can be found in the Investors in People model.

3.       Recognise that the culture needs to alter as the organisation grows

When you start your own business it’s a great feeling; you can do all those things that you’ve always wanted to do.  Create fabulous customer relationships and recruit like minded people.  This works well while the company is small, but as it continues to grow it can also start to fall a part at the seems.  It’s called the growing pains and is a significant challenge to any organisation.  Often as they become larger, their strategic intent and direction changes too.   If an organisation doesn’t pick up on this, they find confusion within the ranks with some teams pulling one way, whilst others are pulling in another direction.   If we go back to Greg Smith at Goldman Sachs, he’d been there for nigh on 14 years and had decided to leave because of the way people and their customers were treated within the organisation.  Over the period of time that he’d been employed, he felt that the culture had changed so much that he could hardly recognise the company he had joined so many years earlier.

Organisations often start off as power cultures due to the fact that the leader has a clear idea of what is required and the direction in which they’d like to take the organisation.  Their values and beliefs are stamped all over the way the business operates and is often fine when there are few people in the organisation.  However when the workforce grows, it becomes difficult to maintain this style and this is why cultures often move towards more of a role culture, which provides an organisational structure enabling people to play to their strengths.

4.       Develop an organisation structure and an environment that help people work towards the same goal

This seems a real common sense thing to do, but how many times do we find departments within our organisations that, perhaps unconsciously, set up land mines for their colleagues in other departments?  Years ago I looked after the front line troops in a contact centre.  Initially I spent a lot of time careering between my teams and the Marketing department to find out what they’d sent out to customers without telling us!  They didn’t seem to realise the impact of only focusing on the external customer.  How could we provide an excellent service if we didn’t have a clue what the customers had been sent?

Successful organisations work together across all areas of the business to achieve the results set out in the operational plan – one department shouldn’t be pitched against another as this results in a poor customer experience and teams within the organisation seemingly receiving preferential treatment whilst their colleagues bear the brunt of their work.   It brings to mind the story of when President John Kennedy visited NASA.  He came across the cleaner and asked what his job was.  The cleaner replied, ‘My job is to help put a man on the moon’.  Whether this is a true story or not, I always think of it when I help organisations to map out their structures.  It shows true alignment  amongst stakeholders, business, departmental and individual goals when we’re all working to the same objective.

5.       Recognise and reward the right attitudes and behaviours as well as results

We all know the old saying ‘What gets measured gets done’.  There’s nothing like a bonus to help focus our attention to achieve our goals.  So in any organisation it is crucial that performance related pay, bonus and incentive schemes promote the attitudes, behaviours and the results that you want to see in your organisation.  And don’t think this element is only right for the majority of the workforce, it’s as important for the leaders as it is for the front line to be recognised for the right elements.  When I talk about recognition, I don’t just see it in the monetary sense – providing feedback is key to reinforce the way you want to see things being done.  Sometimes this means having conversations where you provide constructive criticism about the way the person has behaved or acted.  When you allow destructive behaviours to continue, it says as much about your leadership skills as it does about the person behaving badly.  Look at these conversations as a way of discussing the person’s ‘blind spot’ and helping them to find ways to do it differently next time.  You’ll both feel better for acknowledging it in the long run!

6.       Build fabulous communications systems

Excellent cultures are fed by fabulous communication systems.  Spend time understanding how you want to communicate with your teams on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, half yearly and annual basis.  How much is face to face, how much using social media etc.  How much do you feel that you want to ‘push’ information and how much do you want your people to ‘pull’ the information.  If  you don’t have good systems in place to communicate to your people, they will find a way to communicate … this is often called the grapevine.  And believe me, if you go for a while without communicating, you people will fill that void with their own take on what is happening (or not as the case may be) which makes your job much more difficult.  When you have fabulous communication systems in place, it makes it easier to build relationships and trust across your workforce.

7.       Recruit a leadership team that live the brand

I’m a great believer of whatever happens on the inside of an organisation will be reflected by the way your people treat their customers externally.  So whatever your brand proposition stands for, make sure it lives within your organisation too.  Recruit people who want to work to the same values as your organisation – this means that in tough times, when they revert to type, they will still have these values at their core.  Leaders have a fantastic opportunity to role model what is expected throughout the organisation, but this can also put an enormous pressure on them too.  We’re all fallible and get it wrong sometimes, but it’s about the support systems we have in place that help us to bounce back and do it better next time.  Work together as a leadership team to understand where the challenges are in the organisation and then build systems to give one another feedback on what they do well and where they can improve.

So there we have it – seven pointers to help you create a healthy organisational culture.  Why not hold a review of your culture and see what messages it highlights for you?


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