How’s work? I often find myself talking to people in my network about their work culture, mainly the behaviours and attitudes that are encouraged or tolerated and the organisational values that drive it. Essentially, there are similar work challenges in different professions and across industry sectors. In many organisations, there are no bad people and yet ‘good people keep leaving’ or prefer temporary roles as the organisation struggles to recruit new talent into permanent roles.
People want to feel valued, be empowered, have their strengths fully utilised and strive towards something greater than themselves. The culture of an organisation not only determines this, but ultimately determines the extent that methodologies and frameworks are able to embed themselves.
The 8 Ways to Start Improving Your Work Culture presented below are neither groundbreaking or exhaustive. They are related and overlap in parts, but there is value in defining these separately.
1. Define & Enforce the Culture You Want
“The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” – Gruenter & Whitaker. Culture is the shared set of values, beliefs and attitudes that guide the behaviour of an organisation. This can be by design or by circumstance.
If not clearly defined and enforced, the culture arises through circumstance: a culmination of the worst attitudes and behaviours accepted within the organisation and a sum of its parts, whether those parts are great, average or mediocre.
The real values of an organisation, whether by design or circumstance, are demonstrated by the behaviours exhibited, encouraged, discouraged and tolerated by the leaders, including who they reward, promote, hire, fail to retain or let go. History has taught us (e.g. Enron and, more recently, News of the World) that the behaviours we turn a blind eye to are just as powerful as the behaviours we actively encourage and discourage.
2. Inspire, Empower & Trust
Command, control and scrutinise, often exemplified by the proportion of mandatory versus optional solutions, tools, templates, meetings and reporting imposed on teams, should be limited.
The default approach should be for leaders to inspire, empower and trust their teams through context setting and collaborative engagement to solve clearly defined problems.
The idea is senior leadership and middle management set the context and present problems that need solving for the organisation to solve together. One way of achieving this is to rotate problem champions / ambassadors within each team to facilitate discussions and capture solutions to discuss in a ‘problem working group’ with other team representatives.
Defining a clear problem and allowing everyone to feed into the solution helps improve transparency, trust, commitment and more creative solutions, tailored to the organisation.
3. Continuous Review of Decisions & Solutions
All solutions, including product decisions, technical solutions and ways of working, i.e. tools, templates, meetings, reporting, etc, should be regularly inspected with a view to update, replace or, if necessary, abandon over time, as both problems and solutions evolve.
The alternative is to dogmatically adhere to historical decisions and ways of working that may no longer be applicable in light of new information.
4. Incremental & Evolutionary Change
Changes should be incremental and evolutionary to allow for learning and adaptation.
Large or multiple concurrent changes are seen as revolutionary, confusing, a threat and is often met with resistance, so changes are more difficult to embed.
5. Define What Good Looks Like
Discuss and agree maturity measures as an organisation to move discussions on ways of working and outputs away from emotional, anecdotal and subjective towards rational, empirical and objective.
6. Empower People to Challenge
Encourage people to challenge decisions and the status quo. Not only will this help improve decision-making and the status quo, but people will feel more valued and be more committed.
However, in practice, people will only feel empowered to challenge if they know, through experience and example, that respectful challenges are encouraged and will not negatively impact their career progression or influence within the organisation.
7. Empower Talent
People are more likely to be excited and challenged, rather than frustrated and bored, if the skills and experience they were recruited for are known, respected, fully utilised and further developed.
Recruiting people for their skills and experience and then telling them exactly what do and how to do it will result in unhealthy conflict, demoralisation, demotivation, failure to retain talent and, when word gets out, recruitment of new talent.
The first step towards fully utilising the skills and experience of people who want their skills and experience fully utilised and respected is to make both things visible. There are different ways to achieve skills transparency, but this may be met with resistance in organisations where people are performing roles not aligned to their skills and experience (potentially surfacing issues around mis-sold roles, career progression and equal pay).
8. Limit Consultants to Consulting & Coaching
The expertise of consultant organisations should be used to increase capability and inform decisions. However, to help permanent employees feel valued and empowered, utilising consultant organisations to perform interim leadership roles or to make decisions should be limited, especially if the sheer number of consultants integrated within the organisations leans towards onsite outsourcing.
Consultant organisations have different goals to permanent employees and contractors (freelancers). These goals may include the use of specific company tools and processes, bringing in more consultants from their organisation or always being seen to add more value or know more than employees and contractors.
Depending on the interim roles performed by consultant organisations, their decisions will directly affect the recruitment, progression and retention of employees and contractors.
For consultant decision-making to not be viewed as siloed or biased, the input of employees must be sought and demonstrably influence final decisions. For consultants and contractors to not be viewed as blocking opportunities for permanent employees to step-up and perform leadership roles, consultants and contractors should actively coach and help develop employees to perform these roles or employees are likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Bringing it all together
Organisations must clearly define and actively enforce their culture, agree what good looks like, only make incremental and evolutionary changes, continuously review decisions and solutions, empower its people to challenge and empower talent to fully utilise their skills, with consultants limited to consulting and coaching (not making decisions). The benefit is a great working environment that both retains and attracts talent. The opposite approach has the opposite effect, as illustrated below.
What are your thoughts? How would you start improving your work culture?