Thursday, March 14, 2013

Digging into culture at work

A healthy culture is the starting point for any successful organisation just as good soil is essential for a successful garden. If you have ever worked in an organisation with an unhealthy culture you will understand the impact culture can have on performance. As a leader, digging into your culture can be a very revealing exercise that you should do on a regular basis if you want to keep your organisation healthy.

So what makes up culture, how do cultures vary and what can you do to improve them?

What makes up a culture
Organisational culture is a complex mixture of elements, not unlike the complex mixture of elements that make up soil in the garden. You need to get all of them in balance or you won’t get the result you want. These 5 layers of organisational culture are:

Organic layer
This represents what people see, the outcome of your culture. Are your visible results the equivalent of productive plants or are they more like annoying weeds?

Top soil
What people do to demonstrate your values including how they act towards each other and respond to situations. It also represents the practices that get rewarded.

Sub soil
What staff, clients and suppliers say about the organisation, almost like the subtext of the organisation. It is also what the organisation says about itself in the form of written policies and procedures that express its values.

Parent material
How you want people to think. The mindset you want your people to have based on your values. This will inform what they deem important and where they channel their efforts.

How you want people to feel about the organisation. In other words, the values you want them to live by that support everything you do.

Think for a moment about your organisation. Can you identify how people feel and think, what they say and do and the results you see from this? If you want to get more insight into how your people view your culture, here is an interesting activity that is bound to open your eyes.

Ask people to give a few words that describe your culture in the past (say, 2 to 5 years ago), in the present and what they would like it to look like in the future (say, 2 to 5 years from now). This exercise can highlight the areas where work is required.

How cultures vary
Different climatic conditions mean that certain types of soil are required for each region in the same way that certain cultures are required in specific industries. The problem becomes when you impose the wrong culture on an industry and then wonder why it fails to perform. The classic example is when a government department tries to compete with the private sector but still has a public service culture.  Perhaps three of the most influential factors are:

Are you in an industry that is on the slow and steady end of the continuum or do you belong at the other end due to the fast moving and constantly changing nature of what you do?

Does the word conservative best describe your industry or would people say you are more in the innovative category?

Is yours a highly regulated industry that must operate within rigid guidelines or do you have the ability to be more flexible in what you do?

Improving the quality of your culture
Changing an organisation’s culture can be a slow process but with the right formula you can do it. If you want to see your organisation flourish then follow these three steps.

Clear out
Start by clearing out any ineffective policies, procedures and people that are reducing the quality of your culture. If you aren’t sure what they might be, ask your staff – they will know!

Own up
Now it’s time to address any past issues, errors or concerns that have contributed to the poor quality culture. Be honest with people about decisions that were made and their impact on the workplace. Analyse what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it happening again.

Move on
By introducing new people, new ideas and new ways of working that fit your true values. Again, get your people involved in coming up with ideas that will replace your old culture with a new one that is engaging for employees and customers alike.

To learn more take the “How healthy is your workplace culture?” quiz at

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