Mandy Flint & Elisabet Vinberg Hearn: Overlook culture at your peril

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With General Motor’s culture failings fresh in memory, it’s certainly relevant for everyone to take culture very seriously.

As you may know, GM’s CEO was recently called in front of the US congress to answer questions following several deaths and accidents due to faulty car ignitions. The culture was identified as a root cause where people within the organization seem to have been aware of the issues but not done anything about them. After the financial bailout that GM received in 2009, the company had started a culture overhaul programme that does not yet seem to have achieved the desired outcomes. Cultural change does take time though and GM seems to be recognizing the importance of culture, but has not yet come far enough in its efforts.

The thing is, and this is true for all organisations, there is always a culture. Wherever you work, there will be a culture (just like any society is guided by its cultural norms) and the culture can either be left to its own devices or it can be consciously created, adjusted, tweaked or changed. You get to decide.

What is culture then? 

Culture is always present, it never stops.

In a way culture is quite simple, it simply determines “how things get done around here”. It is usually implicit rather than explicit and can be hard to pinpoint. It is not the “what”, it is the “how” of business. It is how people react, behave and interact every minute of every day. It is not something complicated or fluffy, it is something quite simple. It is the glue that holds an organisation together. It is however not determined by a framed poster on the wall in reception, it is more complex than that. And this is the challenge with culture, the concept is simple but the implementation can be very complex and habits die hard, and to change behaviours takes time.

The questions to ask, for an organisation that wants to embrace the power of culture, are these:

  • Do we have a healthy culture that drives the organisation forward, that makes it easy to operate effectively and efficiently?
  • Do people enjoy working there?
  • Does the culture deliver results while creating a true picture of an organisation with integrity?
  • Does it create trust and build confidence?
  • Does it attract customers, employees and investors?

These are relevant questions, because it should do all those things. Culture, as we’ve discussed, is “how things get done” and for that reason it should be on every board’s agenda as well as every executive team’s and every leader’s agenda. Leaders at all levels should be setting the tone for “how things get done”.

Culture definitely starts at the top, and at the same time it can’t just be dictated from the top. It needs to resonate with people at all levels, it needs to feel right for people, as something they would “stand for” themselves. It gets propagated by role modeling not just by words.

For these reasons the ingredients of culture start with hiring. When new employees get hired and introduced into the organization, not only do they need to know WHAT to do (their tasks and responsibilities), they also need to know HOW to do it. For example:-

  • How do decisions get made around here?
  • How much can I decide? How much am I empowered?
  • Who can I go to for decision on this?
  • Can I give my views honestly and openly?
  • Who can I go to for advice on this?
  • Is it OK to talk to senior leaders openly?
  • What is acceptable here?

Organisations need to make it easy for potential new employees to understand what the organisation is all about, what it stands for and therefore, what kind of culture there is – so that they can decide whether this is a culture that fits them or not. And once they are hired, new employees need to understand at greater depth what the culture is all about, “how things get done here”. The organization has a great opportunity here to get things right from the start by taking a proactive approach to this kind of onboarding of new hires.

As mentioned earlier, the behavioural rules of an organisation can be either implicit or explicit. Implicit rules are made up of behaviours we observe or undertones that we can pick up on, whereas explicit rules are what we are told to do, guided by for example the corporate values. And implicit rules will trump explicit ones every single time!

Let’s look at an example: Imagine a company that say it values and respects people’s work/ life balance. Leaders then reward and praise people who work long hours, sacrificing their personal lives! And as well intended as that may be, we can all agree that it is not a behaviour in support of work/life balance.

Let’s get practical. An organisation that wants to work on their culture, should consider the “two trains” of culture; this is a metaphor of two parallel drivers that will support one another and help shape the culture if done correctly. Both trains are important and can bring you forward, but sometimes organisations only focus on one and not the other, and as a result don’t get as far.

The first “train” is all about behaviour (we’re back to “how things get done”), meaning that each employee, from the CEO to the workfloor, are role models and that their behaviours shape the work culture. This in turn means that everyone needs to be made aware of the fact that what they do matters and that how they do it matters even more. This leads to the creation of a culture where people are emotionally attached to the organisation at a much deeper level, as they realize how important they are. It creates an awareness of personal impact and they will want to do more, as they know they can influence more aspects of their job and the business.

The second “train” is about systemic framework. This is made up by all the internal systems and procedures that organisations need to consistently deliver. It provides a mechanism for making the needed, healthy behaviours easier to do, such as job descriptions, work processes, handover procedures, performance appraisals and much more. Let us look at an example from the service function to illustrate this:

The customer complaints process must empower team members in a way that is consistent with the desired culture. If the culture you want is that everyone is empowered to satisfy the customer, then don’t write a procedure that requires escalation on every minor issue, as this will achieve the opposite.

Some people shy away from the word culture, which may be a reason why it often gets ignored. They don’t like the word, they find if fluffy or they think it’s another management fad.

The thing is this though; it doesn’t matter what it’s called, it doesn’t matter if someone likes it or not – it is there just the same. There is always a culture! You can of course choose to call it something else (and you may need to, if there is a strong resistance to it within your organization) but you definitely need to heed it. Other phrases to describe the same thing could include:

  • Success system
  • Success strategy
  • Working climate
  • Values in Practice
  • Operating guidelines
  • Transformation

In the end it doesn’t matter what it’s called, what matters is that people get and adhere to “how things get done here”.  It is all about what we do and not just what we say.

So go ahead and share expectations; if you for example want to have a culture of sharing ideas then start sharing ideas yourself as well as putting it into people’s goals and that will help drive the behaviour of sharing. You are effectively using both “trains” of culture, you role model the behaviour AND you encourage the same behaviour in others through the goal system.

In a clear, strong, healthy culture, people know EXACTLY how to operate and this helps them to act with integrity for the good of all constituents. This is the only way to long-term success.

Think about the power of culture and remember that you can make it manageable and tangible, rather than soft and fluffy – because it’s not – it is the strongest driving force of an organization.

And it starts with each person, every day, every minute. You are all creating it through every interaction you have. Whether you are a leader, team member or part of many teams; every interaction you have is creating the culture.

What culture are you creating today?

Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, award-winning authors of “The Team Formula: A Leadership Tale of a Team Who Found their Way

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  1. An excellent and thought provoking article – Thanks for sharing.
    I can only add, that I believe that Beliefs drive Behaviours, so what the people believe to be true, will determine what they do.

    I also believe that Behaviour Breeds Behaviour which supports your ‘first train.’

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