How can you fix organisational culture? Find out in this post by Diane Lee.

3 things you can do to fix your organisational culture

How can you fix your organisational culture?

It’s the age-old question that just about everyone asks at some point in their working lives: how do you fix a workplace culture that’s dysfunctional and toxic?

The short answer is: you can’t.

Sorry about that.

The long answer is you can, but it takes a significant amount of energy, time and (probably) money. And in an age where most organisations want a quick fix, most organisational culture projects are doomed to failure because they are long tail. And these projects fail not because of systems, frameworks, project plans, policies, procedures, processes, guidelines or communication, although these all play a role. Change projects fail—somewhere in the vicinity of 70%—because of people.

That’s right.


Which workplace are you?

Everyone knows the kind of workplaces they want to work in, right? Flexible and supportive. Lots of opportunity for learning and promotion. Systems and processes that work. IT that isn’t 10 years behind the times. Policies that support and empower decision-making at all levels rather than stymie it. Interesting work. Great leaders who share a vision and bring their constituents along. Where trust levels are high because of transparency and accountability. Where open and honest communication that challenges the status quo is really a thing. Where innovation isn’t just a buzzword, and risk-taking is rewarded. I could go on, and you could probably add your own things to this list.

(As an aside, if you do work in an organisation like the one described above 1) lucky you and 2) please let me know when there’s a vacancy.)

I don’t know about you, but in my 35 years of working, I’ve worked mostly in these kinds of organisations: command and control management that gets things done by fear. Promotions and work opportunities go to who you know and who you’re aligned to rather than what you can do. Incompetent or inept people being paid a lot of money to do not very much. Productivity measured by hours at your desk rather than outcomes. Arbitrary decisions made without consultation. Zero strategy and even less accountability. Colleagues and peers distrusting and sabotaging each other. Bullying and harassment rife. Organisational values used as weapons to control dissenting voices. Dissenting voices silenced in a number of ways. Again, I could go on…!

These things don’t just happen.

They are a result of culture.

What is organisational culture?

I define culture the Linda Ford way: it’s not just about “how we do things around here” but also “how we get you to do things around here”. It’s the 10 tonne gorilla that’s in every organisation that no one acknowledges. And it’s mostly not managed well.

Workplace culture is a result of people, and to explain, let me share what I posted on Medium this morning in response to Jason Shen’s post (and which is essentially the reason for writing this essay):

From my personal experience, it’s (mostly) workplaces and their cultures (and subcultures), that predict who rises — and who doesn’t — in an organisation. How power is constructed and distributed also has a lot to do with it. Workplaces seek to maintain the status quo — because of vested interests — even if it’s a negative culture. Just look at how many change programs fail if you need proof! I don’t know what the answer is, but what I do know is that managers — who may or may not be skilled, capable and empathetic — are making decisions that affect people’s lives, careers and livelihoods. Unless the culture (read: leader down) says (through very clear messaging and consequences/rewards) which behaviours are unacceptable (forget about values — they’re not worth the paper they’re written on) nothing will change. And good people — male AND female — will leave for greener pastures. And the cultures (and subcultures) of the workplaces they leave are reinforced and fossilised…

How to fix your organisational culture

As I said above, you can fix your organisational culture, but it requires a significant investment in time, energy and effort, and people. And this is how you do it. You do it with the right people with the right skills in the right jobs doing the right things at the right time.

How hard can that be? Apparently and sadly, it’s nigh on impossible. And because smarter people than I have written about this stuff, I’ve included links to further reading just on the off-chance you want to find out more. None of what I’m saying is new!

Fix your leader

There’s an old saying: the fish rots from the head first and in an organisation, this is especially true. The leader of an organisation—I don’t care what their title is, or gender, ethnicity, qualifications or sexuality—sets the tone for what transpires in an organisation. And he or she is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in that organisation. From who gets promoted (and how and why) to how customer complaints are dealt with to what the training budget is: the buck stops with the leader of the organisation. Whatever the culture of your workplace is, it has manifested either directly or indirectly through what has been sanctioned or tolerated or rewarded or punished (for want of a better word) by your leader. I’ll give you an example.

I’ve worked in a number of organisations that have operated on fear. People were afraid of voicing their concerns about operational matters because they were worried about losing their jobs. They were worried about being made redundant even though they didn’t know anyone that had actually happened to. What they did see was a number of strong performers in executive given their marching orders. That sends a stark message: if good performers who deliver are let go, it can happen to anyone. “Heads on spikes” is a powerful communication tool and encourages a compliant silence from would-be dissenting voices.

The leader of the organisation sets the tone. End of story.

Further reading:

Interested in learning more about leadership? Click here to get books in the Amazon store.

Fix your managers, supervisors and team leaders

Managers, supervisors and team leaders—whatever you call them—are employed to deliver on the strategic vision of the organisation, assuming, of course, that there is one. They also play an administrative role, for example, delegating and overseeing work, managing projects, dealing with HR issues, reporting back up the line. One would hope they are well-trained and competent, but in my experience, this is not often the case. If you are lucky enough to have a decent manager—or at least a benign one—you are the exception rather than the rule. Managers interpret and misinterpret the leader’s wants, needs and requirements—often based purely in terms of their self-interest and what they can get away with.

This of course begs the question: who’s managing the manager? The answer is generally: no one. And in times of organisational chaos change, when accountability goes out the window, the sociopaths opportunists slide out of the woodwork. These people will inherit your organisation and will cause it immense and irreparable damage if you take your eye off the ball for even one second.

Watch hiring decisions. Remember that merit is defined by whoever has the power to define it. Cronyism manifests a monoculture that is dysfunction. In a monoculture, decisions are made in an echo chamber. Group think reigns supreme. Dissenting voices, which should be encouraged, are silenced.

Further reading:

Want to be a better manager? There are a tonne of books on this topic in the Amazon store. Click here!

Fix your people

And by fix, I mean nurture them. Treat them well. Show them that they matter and you care. Invest in them. Reward them. Recognise their achievements. Promote talent. Take them seriously. Listen to them, especially the inconvenient voices that tell you what needs to be done. Encourage them to innovate and fail and innovate again. Get to know them and their stories because their narratives are the spine of your organisation. Love them and they will love you back. Appreciate them, and they will walk over hot coals for you.

Further reading:

Get happier, more productive staff with these books from Amazon.

And here are 3 things you shouldn’t bother fixing

At least, not until after you’ve fixed the 3 things above. And if this kind of fixing happens in your workplace, run—don’t walk—to your nearest recruiter. Only bad things will happen if you work in such an organisation.

Don’t fix your logo, stationery, uniforms, office layout etc.

If I had a dollar for every manager (or leader) who sweeps in and changes all the surface stuff on their appointment to the job, I’d be a very rich woman. Let me tell you now: changing the surface stuff changes nothing. A new logo or stationery won’t change your customers’ experience with your organisation. New uniforms won’t make your staff perform any better. A new office layout or furniture won’t make unhappy staff any happier.

Don’t fix systems, policies, processes, procedures, guidelines etc,

I have seen organisations spend thousands and thousands of dollars on new IT systems that failed miserably. I’ve seen policies ignored. I’ve seen workarounds for processes and procedures. I’ve seen guidelines left on the shelf, gathering dust. People being people will not embrace stuff they find neither useful nor necessary. Just because the leader of the organisation wants it to happen won’t be enough of a reason, and bogus reasons will be seen through.

Don’t fix the number of staff on your payroll

Do not touch staff numbers unless you have a strategic plan. Just don’t. And I say this because how do you know that you have the requisite skills to carry out your vision if you’ve shown staff out the door? How do you know what your staffing requirements are if you don’t have a plan? Sure, you can hire temps or contractors or freelancers to make up the short fall, but it takes a long time to on-board staff and build up corporate knowledge. How can staff make a strategic decision if they don’t understand the business?

It’s actually not that hard to have a happy, thriving, productive organisation, which begs the questions: why are many of our organisations hotbeds of dysfunction?

Did this post resonate with you?

Collection 4: Working It Out of the Love & Other Brave Acts (Essays on Courage for Fearless and Fabulous Living) series is all about work, workplaces and organisational culture.If you liked this post, then you’ll love my collection of essays about work.

Part memoir, part analysis of workplace culture, I consider the world of work and the definition of career success. And anyone who has found themselves disillusioned about the progress of their career—and that’s a lot of us!—will relate to this book.

Grab your copy of Collection 4: Working is Out  from the Amazon Kindle Store for .99c.

(If you want even more value for money, you can now get all 6 books from the Love & Other Brave Acts series for $4.99. Just saying.)

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