Guest Blogger

Now, more than ever, leaders need to be thoughtful about their organisations’ culture.

Many experts have previously agreed with Edgar Schein who suggested that leadership and culture were two sides of the same coin. Leaders in organisations are typically the people who set objectives and initiate activities. The methods they believe work well are disseminated. These become collective ways of thinking about how things ought to be done and become embedded as organisational values. These values are then shared with newcomers and the newcomers emulate the leaders, perpetuating the core organisational culture. The people who share these values are welcomed and, sooner or later, those who don’t may leave. As such, Leaders’ plans create the values which comprise organisational culture.

Changing Business Models

This is the first reason Leaders now have to be particularly thoughtful about their organisations’ culture. If Leaders’ plans create culture, consider the impact of leaders making significant changes to ‘how things ought to be done.’ Eighty percent of CxOs report currently experimenting with different business models or thinking of doing so! As leaders disrupt their own business models, what impact will this have on their organisation’s culture? And, how will the workforce react?

This latter question raises a separate set of considerations and a second reason for reflection.

Changing Basis for Power

Whether or not a workforce aligns itself to its leaders’ direction, new ways or working and ‘how things ought to be done,’ can make or break organisations. Leaders do well to recognise this with humility. This was illustrated by wise King Canute. The King intentionally demonstrated the limits of his powers by commanding the tide not to rise. When it did not obey him, the waves continued to rise and he leapt clear of them, he told his flatterers, ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings…’ In so doing, he showed respect for power greater than his own.

I’ve written previously on the transfer and distribution of power within organisations from leaders to the workforce. “Influence is no longer hierarchical; it can be distributed and unstable. This is unlikely to change in the short-term so organisations’ success will lie in their adaption to this new state.”

Your workforce has the power to make or break your plans, so new ways need to be found to socialise intentions, consult on proposals and mediate between groups who may have different needs. Knowing how your employees feel about your plans, what they believe you should do and how they suggest your organisation can be improved can offer tremendous opportunity. As an upside: inclusive leadership that capitalises on diverse influences, deploying collective knowledge to the organisation’s advantage, typically derives tremendous value.[1]

I don’t suggest I have a silver bullet or ideal answer to the challenges we’re thus seeing raised. I have seen two approaches deliver value in organisations however and so I share these below.

Sustaining Your Culture

Let’s assume we accept that organisational culture is important; aligned to organisational purpose it can be used to unify and focus your workforce and enable the delivery of a consistent customer experience. If it is likely to be challenged by changing operating models, what can you do to ensure was is retained is useful in your business?

Ensure you recognise the simple truths that underpin your culture. Not the brand messages or the communications strategy ‘spin,’ but the truths. Find what has been and will always be a positive distinguishing feature of your organisation and perpetuate that. In words and deeds, as drivers of decision-making and explanations of changes – repeat and share them every day. After all, research has shown that “Leaders’ ability to focus energy on an inspiring mission is key to driving organisational success…”

For example, consider how many media companies have had to completely reimagine everything about their operating models. Some traditional print-media houses now operate entirely online. Nevertheless, those that stood for integrity, free speech or being the voice of the people can still do that. And those who traded on tales of the provocative or outrageous can continue to do so. What those organisations stood for, their values and that aspect of their culture, didn’t need to change when their operating models did. So too, whether you’re running a bank or a retail organisation, you can find elements of your culture that can be sustained through all other organisational change.

These key features of your culture can be embedded in policy, structure and processes to underpin, enable and sustain your values and cultural priorities. All that effort will be undermined though if your workforce is not onboard.

Creating Sustainable Change

Learn from wise King Canute. Don’t ignore the rising tide of employee voice! You cannot know ‘the truth’ about your organisation without asking your workforce’s point of view. Fortunately, technology is making it increasingly possible for even large organisations to hear their employee’s voice on all matters – and forward thinking organisations are quickly recognising the value of doing so.

Did you know, Human Resources practitioners in organisations who use multiple listening methods rate their organisational performance and reputation 24% higher than those who do not? Using internal and external social platforms make it easier to capture, analyse and reveal potential organisational issues and hidden opportunities. Semi-structured approaches to data collection allow for more meaningful employee dialogue. And new technology that allows for trends to be spotted in unstructured data also opens new channels to new information.

Consider how you could capture the power of your people, their knowledge, insight into your customers’ satisfaction and ideas for improving your organisation’s efficiency. And think what just a five percent improvement in any one of those areas could do for your bottom line. Now ask yourself: what action will you take to inform future change?

[1] Research has shown having a ‘strong climate of diversity and inclusion’ in an organisation can deliver three times the Performance Confidence, three times higher levels of Employee Engagement and four times the level of Innovation.

Written by Clodagh O’Reilly

Clodagh is a specialist in applying behavioural science in organisations to predict and enable optimal performance for individuals and organisations. She leads the Workforce Science & Analytics Practice for IBM’s Smarter Workforce unit in EMEA. She is a former Chair of the Association for Business Psychology, a member of the Engage Employee Advisory Board and guest speaker for City University’s MSc course in Business Psychology. Clodagh founded the annual Workforce Experience Awards programme and edited the book, “Delivering Excellent Workforce Experiences.”

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