Culture, Culture – Organisational

Organizational Culture: Developing and Sustaining a Healthy and Successful Workplace Culture

In my mid-twenties I worked in Sydney as an HR specialist for an international business equipment company. Like all organizations it had a particular culture, including that office staff were expected to work between the hours of 8.30am and 5pm. Nobody was expected to arrive later than 8.30 or work after 5.00. However, I would often arrive around 8.45 and leave usually around 5.30. One particular morning I entered the elevator at 8.45 and joining me was the CEO. He asked me to come straight to his office and then I had to wait while he wrote a note for me to take to my manager. My boss smiled as he read the message. The CEO expected him to discipline me for arriving 15 minutes ‘late’. The 8.30-5.00 working hours was a very strong expectation!

Culture can be described as the values (eg. respectful relationships), expectations (eg. my experience as described above) and norms of behaviour (eg. regardless of status or position address all staff by their first names) within a particular community or organization. Workplace culture expresses what I refer to as the ‘missional DNA’ of any business or organization. It comprises four elements. Using a courier company as a fictitious example I will briefly describe each:

  • Foundational Mission – This is the purpose for which the organization was established initially. It’s the organization’s ‘why?’. While that may flex over time the essential mission of the organization should continue. For a courier company that might be: providing a delivery service at a competitive price.
  • Basic Beliefs – These are the undergirding beliefs that support the organization’s purpose. Again with our courier company example this might be: customer loyalty depends on items delivered safely, courteously, and on time.
  • Core Values – Core values are the 4-7 essential principles that express the ‘heart’ of the organization. They engage employees’ emotional commitment and give a sense of direction for how the company should function. I call them the ‘what matters most’. Using our business example some core values might be: prompt response to customers’ needs, personal and business integrity, innovative leadership.
  • Motivational Vision – Vision is a weaving together of the above three elements to paint a succinct, motivational picture of what the organization will look like 5-10 years in the future. For example, ‘It’s 2030 and our company is the preferred courier service for medium to large organizations in the state.’ (Stating the vision in the present tense sharpens organizational accountability to see the vision fulfilled.)

Supporting and sustaining organizational culture are three ‘pillars’: leadership behaviour; organizational systems; and symbols. For culture to be positive and effective all three dynamics need to be aligned and expressive of (or at least not conflicting with) the above four elements, especially the core values.

  1. Leadership Behaviour – Of the three, leadership behaviour is the most important, especially the behaviour of the CEO. The primary role of the CEO is to establish, develop and safeguard a healthy and productive organizational culture. She/he does this by:
    • Personally modelling the 4 elements, in particular the core values;
    • Honouring and rewarding all employees who exemplify the culture;
    • Holding managers accountable whose behaviours contradict the culture, especially the core values.

  2. Organizational Systems – Also to reinforce the desired culture it’s important to establish congruent organizational systems and structures. Every business has at least some systems and structures that enable the organization to fulfill its mission. Usually these are related to financial management, marketing, production, staffing, health and safety and the management of important information. But just as important is to put in place systems that promote the organization’s basic beliefs, core values and future vision. Systems such as those for on-boarding new employees, staff coaching and development, exit interviewing, whistle blowing, complaints and grievance procedures provide organic opportunities for affirming the organization’s stated beliefs, values and vision. They also offer a means for management to hear how consistently the business is practising its desired culture and where intervention is needed. 

  3. Symbols – Symbols refer to those images, practices or rituals in an organization that communicate at a non-verbal level what the business really believes and values. For example if respect is claimed to be a core value, but managers show disrespect to employees what people will believe is not the stated value but what they experience. Another example, if equality is espoused as a value but limited off street parking is only provided for executives who spend the whole day in the office, what employees will hear is the value of privilege, not equality.

The Shadow Culture Culture is the ‘glue’ that holds an organization together and enables it to fulfil its values and vision. And it is the responsibility of senior leadership to establish the desired culture and ensure that it is sustained and developed. Unless that happens, after a while and especially when the challenges of growth occur, a ‘shadow’ culture will likely develop. Usually this shadow culture is the polar opposite of the desired organizational values and systems. So instead of collaboration there’s cut-throat competition; instead of genuine customer service there’s disrespect; instead of following due process employees cut corners. This is why key leaders, especially the CEO, need to take tough action to ensure that attitudes and behaviours contrary to the organization’s desired culture are addressed promptly. Otherwise the shadow becomes the dominant culture, the company’s image is tarnished and good employees become disheartened and leave.

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