“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker
You’re likely familiar with this quote. I don’t think many of us would refute it. That said, very few organisations intentionally design their culture. Instead, they move forward hoping enough strategic planning, forecasting, and reporting will drive results.
Why is this the case?
In my experience, culture is often considered the amorphous, squishy thing that is hard to see and “nice to have” but not critical. Culture, in the minds of many executives, has nothing to do with the work that needs to get done. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Culture is part of the fabric of everyday work, as it’s how we “do things” within organisations.
This article will give you the tools to examine your organisation’s health and begin the process of healing it before the consequences of poor health can take hold.
Let’s start where long-lasting change is always born: self-examination.
Examine your organisational health
Look around your organisation. When was the last time you paid attention to the health and dynamics of the living, breathing system you call your company?
You might see your employees every day without knowing a thing about them:
- Do you know what obstacles are in their way?
- Do you know what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose?
- Have you asked them how you could better support their work?
These aren’t the kinds of things managers typically think about when working to strengthen a culture. However, when employee frustration and disengagement arise, it is likely not because the break room vending machine is out of Diet Coke.
Instead, the usual culprits are a lack of clarity around goals, the inability to experience personal growth, poorly defined roles and decision making authority, and a lack of communication on important issues.
Culture arises from how people, and especially management, treats everyone else.
Employees aren’t engaged with their work due to surface level perks, but as a result of open lines of communication, alignment between their purpose and the organisation’s purpose, and a genuine sense of trust amongst their leaders and colleagues.
Understand the consequences of culture
The culture within an organisation heavily influences what it can do and how quickly it can do it. However, culture is not an independent or isolated factor at work. There is a highly dynamic interplay between culture, engagement, and leadership.
Firstly, we know that culture breeds engagement or disengagement.
Highly engaged units perform better because employees are more present and productive, making them better attuned to the needs of customers. These aren’t just warm and fuzzy benefits. Tangible results can be produced when engagement is improved: highly engaged units result in 21 per cent greater profitability. Engagement only happens when the culture is open, collaborative, and transparent, and for most organizations, the leaders cast that mould from the very first day.
When an organisation begins, leaders have a preference for how work gets done, and those preferences eventually become the operating norms or the culture of the team. So, in a very real sense, leaders create culture.
In a more mature organisation, culture should inform and influence leadership. For example, an outside executive brought in to lead a team might be met with resistance and disapproval if they don’t match the organisation’s culture. They may be perceived as too aggressive or outspoken, or even too meek and timid to wield influence. Culture informs the behaviours expected of leaders and greatly impacts their success.
Our organisations need healing
Culture, if used correctly, can heal the crisis of suffering in organisations. Fear is a common poison that cripples an organisation over time. In a fear based culture, individuals withhold perspectives and insights for fear of ridicule, information is hoarded for power, and policies squash motivation and innovation.
Fortunately, progressive leaders are beginning to wake up to how critical workplace culture is to the overall health and success of an organisation. Organisations that successfully attract, retain, and engage great workforces are those that focus on culture and wellbeing in a holistic way. They pay attention to how culture touches people’s lives, their health, wellbeing, autonomy, and purpose. They know culture is not narrow. It encompasses every interaction in the organisation.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his book Dying for a Paycheck, finds that workplace toxicity is reduced when three areas improve: job control, autonomy, and social support.
Shifts in these areas create a culture that fosters individual freedom, autonomy to do the work at hand and the authority to make decisions. Such organisations have much greater customer satisfaction ratings, more innovation, and as a result more profit. Once again, we see that building an intentional, healing culture is one of the best investments leaders can make.
Servant leaders must initiate the healing
Robert K. Greenleaf defined servant leadership as: “Focusing primarily on the growth and wellbeing of people and the communities to which the leader belongs.”
Servant leadership offers the chance to heal yourself and your relationship to others, leading to a powerful force of transformation in both people and organisations. In most traditional organisations, pervasive suffering has left people with broken spirits and a variety of emotional hurts. Servant leadership recognises we all have an opportunity to heal through the way we interact with others and our work.
We must show up as leaders consciously, being able to do so in a way that appreciates differences and allows people’s wholeness and voices to come to light. Several studies have highlighted how servant leadership can improve the wellbeing and emotional health of team members by creating a positive and healthy organisational culture. In “Healing a Broken Spirit: Role of Servant Leadership” the authors find:
“A servant leader—with reported behaviour characteristics such as empathy, compassion, and altruistic calling and healing—builds not only a mentally and emotionally healthy workforce but also inculcates a sense of cohesiveness, collaboration, and sustainable relationships among the followers by understanding and addressing their feelings and emotions…. [A servant leader] increases pro social and altruistic behaviour among followers that improves organisational performance.”
Servant leaders use compassion and care within organisations to foster healing, wellbeing, and engagement. This, in turn, leads ultimately to a healthy organisational culture over the long term and sustainable, meaningful growth – and ongoing profit.
For more on transformation and cultural change within your organisation sign up for our free newsletter.