Is now the time for cultural change?

I am lucky to be working on a positive and exciting project with a start-up business at the moment. This week we turned our thoughts to what kind of culture is right for the business. By taking the seeds of an idea and shaping that vision into a strong platform from which to grow, we are shaping the business through the way we position the brand, hire new members of the team, run management meetings, the language we use and how we interact together, translating the founders values into behaviours and actions.

It struck me that for established businesses the culture is often accepted for what it is, with people acting on autopilot working around it to complete their roles and follow processes.   So whilst reorganising the office space and rethinking working patterns, now could be the opportune time to look at the underlying culture, stepping back to give it a health check and question if it’s how you want to be in the future?   It will be all too easy to get swept back into a “this is how it’s always been done” mentality where negative behaviours once again are normalised and accepted.

Organisational culture of course, is not something which can be simply written down as a policy or in a handbook by the HR team and expected to change.  It is shaped by behaviours and actions starting at the top.  Just look at the Trump v Biden administrations.  On day 1 President Biden made it crystal clear, he would fire anyone on the spot who was did not act with humility, talked down to or did not respect the dignity of their colleagues. 

A friend describing the culture of their organisation, which has been operating over 20 years, initially said it was fun, everyone getting on well and always improving what they do.  But on digging deeper that is just the public face of the company and what the stated culture was cultivated to be by the leadership team.  But behind the scenes the real culture is one where the board is bureaucratic and slow to approve innovation, the senior management team offer limited feedback apart from during formal and structured Townhall “talk to the team sessions” and there are a number of longstanding “Queen bees” (male & female) in various teams, who are blockers by holding influence over the views and acceptance of their colleagues, on any initiatives or change.  Sound familiar?

Over my career I have encountered several scenarios like this when joining a new business to turn it around.  On the surface it’s running effectively with great team spirit but look closer and there are cracks and negativity restricting progress. That is why my priority is often to focus on the people first and I have found ultimately it was the organisational cultural shift I implemented, which made the most fundamental difference to achieving success.  At the extreme I had to fire a guy on the spot for gross misconduct, on discovering he was whipping up a hate campaign across the team against a fellow manager, through to harnessing the energy and passion of a young team, who had not previously had time invested in their development and performance.

For me cultural change starts at the top within senior teams.  By changing their approach to working together, the cultural shift opens out across the team organically.  For example, moving away from having heated debates where everyone is pushing their own agenda, to encouraging proactive input and open discussion, offering guidance rather than enforcing policy, accepting grey rather than demanding black, collaborating rather than competing.   With aggression, hate, criticism and negativity fuelling the media and social channels, as leaders we have to make sure this doesn’t seep into the workplace as acceptable behaviour.

As we have had to adapt to an alternative way of working, the last 12 months has certainly opened up a broader discussion about how we work, balancing the needs of the business and those of our colleagues, with organisational culture forming a key part of this.   

If you have not yet come across them, check out Corporate Rebels for example who have created a movement to make work more fun, offering an alternative view of how businesses can be run effectively through greater collaboration and freedom. As an introduction the 3 Principles To Run A Company Sensibly, focuses on a culture based on understanding, involving and recognizing.

With past norms broken, I believe 2021 offers a unique opportunity for forward thinking businesses and leaders to do things differently, implementing positive cultural change for the mutual benefit of people, customers and the business performance.  Whether that is having more transparency of the financial performance, adapting the language used across all levels to be more open, encouraging, and inclusive or giving all members of the team a voice to share ideas and concerns which are then acted on. 

I hope this article has provided food for thought.  I’d be happy to share my experience of creating the positive cultural changes in the businesses I have run, if it would be of help in your thinking.

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