Organisations such as Google are renowned for their strong workplace culture. Many articles and even movies have been dedicated to its open workspaces, collaborative approach to decision-making and active encouragement of innovation and cooperation. Can organisations create culture or does it just evolve? In this article, we discuss the importance of culture in organisations and explore some ways in which a positive culture can be fostered.
What is Culture?
Before we begin, we acknowledge the inherent complexity of ‘culture’ and the vast amount of international literature on the topic. We also acknowledge that in most organisations, ‘cultural goals’ are quite specific: they might be striving to cultivate a culture of ‘quality’ or ‘winning’, ‘compassion’ or ‘competition’. For others, a culture of ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘conducive to feedback’ is the desired outcome.
At Worklogic, we focus on the ethical, wellbeing and ‘conflict’ cultures of workplaces, and the consequences of cultural and ethical failures. When we are called in to address bad behaviour in the workplace, we often identify something about the culture which meant that employees felt comfortable to breach policies, to cover up failure and wrongdoing, and to persecute whistleblowers and vulnerable colleagues. We are particularly interested in what it is about workplace cultures which allow, enable and even encourage people to behave badly, but this article considers elements of positive workplace cultures.
By positive culture, we mean a culture which encourages staff to work constructively together, to care for each other’s wellbeing (or at least to avoid damaging each other’s wellbeing), to cooperate to achieve the organisation’s goals, and to maintain the organisation’s ethical standards.
In this article, we discuss some principles and examples which are easily adapted to your organisation’s culture. We will also explore the risk factors which could lead to poor behaviour creeping into your workplace, and finally, suggest some take-away questions for you to consider in relation to your own workplace culture.
A vital element of the culture of a workplace is the shared beliefs and values of a group. These beliefs and values will determine what is (and is not) the acceptable and encouraged behaviour within that group – what we are really striving for, and how we go about achieving our goals. Culture in an organisational context is vitally important. It defines boundaries, provides incentives and disincentives, and binds the members of a group to one another.
Culture is critically important in a workplace and contributes to the long term success or detriment of an organisation. Peter Drucker’s well-known statement “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is oft repeated for good reason. Culture comes first and should be the priority: a great strategy without a positive workplace culture is pointless. Indeed, a strategy’s effectiveness depends on cultural alignment.
For example, a workplace culture characterised by optimism can have far reaching positive effects in times of change. Optimism strengthens the employee’s resilience and causes the employee to build social support and other strengths to overcome obstacle he or she may encounter. Positive interactions among workers are proven to lead to better psychological health for employees. Praise tends to spawn confidence and innovation in work, and an optimistic approach to others. It is a powerful contributor to encouraging constructive rather than destructive work behaviours, and increasing resilience to minor irritations. In such an environment, praise and optimism are infectious. Demonstrated trust and pride in people will in turn encourage efforts which further build trust and confidence.
Conversely, if a workplace’s culture is more orientated to criticism, blame, individualism or competition at the expense of others, will employees be open to change? Will they be flexible, adapt, be generous towards the organisation and work constructively to implement the change? Role modelling of the new way of being must clearly be lived “at the top”, before the rank and file employees will follow suit, and work supportively in return.
There are a number of ways in which culture in families and communities is formed and develops over time. They include younger members watching and listening to elders and copying them; teaching and initiation by key members to new members; stories and myths; ceremonies and rituals; punishment and reward, consistent reinforcement and identification of the ‘outsider’; written standards, rules and so on.
In terms of workplace culture, people operate within national cultures, historic time frames and specific business segments. Not surprisingly, then, most businesses have two or three key stakeholders (business owners / stakeholders, employees and employee representatives) who may not completely share objectives and thus not have a shared view of the ‘common good’. It can be a challenge to foster and perpetuate a positive work culture in these circumstances.
Leaders in an organisation need to be able to have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve and a realistic view of where things currently stand. To achieve a real, measurable change in culture, it’s important to have the following:
- Recognition of existing strengths to build upon – there may be aspects of the existing culture which are positive and can be the foundation for broader improvements.
- A “start small” and then transform incrementally – wholesale, abrupt changes can do more harm than good. Smaller, visible and tangible accomplishments initially can develop a new level of confidence and provide a sound foundation for further changes.
- Effective resourcing – for example, if safety is said to be a priority, this should be reflected in the allocation of resources.
- Rules, policies and processes – which are implemented consistently by everyone and reflect the organisation’s values.
- Effective communication – in both words and action.
- Training and education – opportunities for staff for ongoing professional development as well as regular reinforcement of the organisation’s expectations and values.
- Role modelling – particularly those who are in leadership positions, as well every level of staff.
- Strategic recruitment – ensure recruitment questions/screening are designed in such a way as to identify people who will complement and enhance the culture that is being developed.
Workplace Culture: What are we Working Towards?
At the individual, team and business level, a positive workplace culture will be characterised by:
- optimism and praise;
- fun and humour;
- building on passion (play to strengths not weaknesses);
- grounded pride: personal, team and organisational;
- accountability: where staff ask,”What can I do about this?”;
- cross “silo” cooperation, engagement with customers and suppliers;
- meaningful engagement;
- focus on wellness: health, fitness, rest, support and building resilience (personal and organisational);
- strong conflict resolution skills throughout the organisation;
- individual self-awareness: style, values, behaviour, impact;
- safe and sought after 360 feedback;
- discussion and measurement of ‘how things get done round here’;
- risk management strategies for times of stress.
Let’s turn now to what can jeopardise or threaten a healthy workplace culture.
Key Risks for Breakdown in Behaviour
In our practice, we have observed that the following factors contribute to a breakdown in employee behaviour which then subsequently has had a negative impact on the culture of the organisation.
- Change & threat: Changes to roles, accountabilities, reporting arrangements (including a supervisor’s changing expectations or expertise), status or grade can lead to a breakdown in behaviour as can changes to enabling systems (IT or processes). Similarly, changes in team dynamics with members leaving or new members arriving, especially if team has been unchanged for some time, can have a significant impact. The risk of redundancy or pay reduction can also de-stabilise.
- Supervision: A great supervisor is a wonderful thing and can make a hugely positive impact on an organisation. In contrast, supervisors who are remote or absent, unavailable or ineffective, unreasonable and/or micro managing can pose serious challenges for an organisation.
- Lack of peer support: It can be difficult for new employees to an organisation or business unit to feel connected. Likewise, a person in a minority (age, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, education) in an otherwise homogenous team may face challenges if that culture is not welcoming and inclusive of diversity.
- Performance pressure can result from any or a combination of the following:
• role or accountabilities unclear or undeliverable
• role conflict where accountabilities overlap or compete with other
• over large workload, shortage of support staff or other key resources
• tight, unreasonable or changing deadlines
• if new to a role, learning and prior experience are not valued/valuable
• informal performance management process or under threat of same
• organisation in financial strife or under takeover/closure threat
• bonus targets at risk (where bonus payment material to the individual)
- Personal stressors including substance addiction, financial problems, the death of a family member, divorce, loss of custody, serious illness in family or a relocation can have a significant impact on employees and, in turn, the culture of the workplace.
- Job Stress: This may be caused by the management of high conflict or emotional situations, being under-employed or by being required to do boring, repetitive or menial work.
- Fatigue compromises employees on a number of levels and can be caused by excessive emails, jet lag, late night teleconferences, failure to take annual leave/high leave balance, consistently working long hours, end of financial year or other business peak workloads, changes to shift patterns, pregnancy, new baby and long term chronic illness or injury to self or a close family member.
- Environment: Environmental factors in and around the work place can affect employees as well whether it be from noise, crowding or being too hot or cold. When technology does not function “on time on target” this can be a significant stressor.
- Personal Style: Aside from the usual differences of personality, employees with more extreme styles of personalities can take their toll on organisations. This may include individuals with poor emotional maturity (e.g. uncontrolled outbursts of anger/frustration/upset); extreme Type A personalities who focus on task to the complete exclusion of relationship; past trauma or current dysfunction which they have not dealt with; and those with a strong rejection of management and authority. Such individuals may also be seen as ‘experts’ in their field or otherwise ‘special’ (such as volunteers or people who are driven by a cause).
Organisation X is a not for profit with a happy and healthy work place. Employees and people external to the organisation could see a positive culture, the evidence of which were low staff turnover, high levels of engagement in staff development and training initiatives, including a leadership programme (which was available to all employees across the organisation), healthy and respectful working relationships and low levels of internal conflict.
Following a restructure brought about by a financial downturn, the training and development budget was slashed and the leadership programme terminated. HR noticed that, following these changes, there was less collaboration across the organisation and the beginning of a silo mentality. Eventually, with less opportunity for development and reflection of work practices, employees became less respectful and collegiate in their interactions and interpersonal conflict increased. Staff turnover increased dramatically, and valuable corporate knowledge was lost.
How people approach their work is significantly affected by the culture which exists, and which they in turn contribute to.
Here are some questions for you to ponder:
- How would you describe the culture in your organisation?
- If you are having trouble doing this, whose opinion in the organisation would you seek?
- What are you currently doing to foster a positive workplace culture?
- Are there any risks or challenges regarding your current culture?
- If so, what should you be doing (or doing differently) to handle these?
1 “Culture Change That Sticks”, by Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley, Harvard Business Review, 15 August 2012, p.3.
2 “To Change the Culture, Stop Trying to “Change the Culture””, by Robert H. Schaffer, Harvard Business Review Blog, 6 December 2012.