Corporate Culture

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In today’s world, why does everyone from academicians, HR professionals, psychologists, top leaders and even cartoonists talk so much about ‘corporate culture’? What insight have they garnered through research or otherwise that make them focus so heavily on this subject? Well, the simple answer is that ‘corporate culture’ is arguably the biggest differentiator amongst companies as they compete for talent.

Today, as disruption in technology is causing the emergence of new business models and employee tenures at organizations are shrinking, many new organizations can sprout up with the same offering as yours. There are many “me-too’s” today. But the hard part however is for them to replicate “how” you do it – the intangibles or the secret sauce of your corporate culture that puts it all together.

So, that begs the question, what do you mean by corporate culture? How do I assess my culture and more importantly, what can I do to change it? The first two are relatively easier to answer, the latter is perhaps the most difficult and so I will invite readers to share their war stories too.

Organization Culture Defined

The English dictionary defines culture as ethos, philosophy, values, principles, beliefs and so on. Therefore, an organization culture is that organization’s ethos, philosophy, values, principles, beliefs etc. The important distinction is to remember that these are not always stated explicitly. In other words, it is not what the organization “claims” to be its values/beliefs, rather what it demonstrates through its actions, or in some cases lack of it.

Let me give you an example, when a company talks about ‘openness’ as part of its culture, different employees interpret it differently. For some, it may mean the willingness to engage employees across the rank and file where decision-making is not just top down. Some may interpret it to mean more transparency in policies, processes and how business is conducted, while others yet may interpret it as freedom of expression. Regardless of how employees perceive that aspect of culture, what they experience shapes their beliefs around what is the culture of the organization.

While openness may be a stated value, if the actions of the organization do not support it (for e.g. rejecting ideas from junior employees without merit based investigation, rolling out policies without consulting the consumers of that policy etc.) an employee’s perception of that organization is at conflict with the stated value. This is when things start going downhill and employees start doubting everything the organization says, creating trust deficit. Instead of focusing on what is being said, employees spend their energy on what the organization really means or intends to do, often inventing conspiracy theories of their own.

So, now we understand what is organization culture; the next question is how do I assess what is my current company’s culture? This question requires some introspection, courage and more importantly, the ability to suspend judgment. There are many ways of assessing organizational culture: metrics such as attrition, absenteeism, customer satisfaction retention, productivity records, etc. The second approach is to gather information via surveys, closed-ended surveys (for e.g. on a scale of 1-10, what is your view on how participative the organization policy making processes are?) open-ended surveys (for e.g. what in your view best describes our organization culture?) or some combination of both. And lastly, observation – where typically a consultant observes meetings, discussions, individuals, etc. The more neutral the consultant is “perceived” to be, the higher will be the accuracy of their findings.

I commented earlier about the ability to suspend judgment being a critical component of the discovery process. I say so because many of us are tempted to act immediately on what we find, or worse dismiss the findings as grumblings of disgruntled employees. But instead of shooting the messenger which is likely to alienate others (putting the whole discovery process at risk, “another organization farce”), it requires wisdom and maturity to hear the full story and reserve comments for later. Who knows they may already have a solution for the ailment making the leader’s job easy.

Assuming we have been successful in discovering our organization culture, how does one go about changing it for the better? This is by far the most difficult and time consuming activity and will require commitment and resolve at the highest level of leadership as the results will not be seen in the short term. The future desired state of culture requires one to look through both external (shareholders, partners, vendors, competition, society etc.) and internal (strategy, people, ability to change etc.) lens. It is one thing to desire, quite another to accurately assess an organization’s ability to act.

There have been many approaches adopted in the past to discover future desired state: Values Jam, a three-day discussion on organization values conducted on the company’s intranet by a global consulting firm; or the most widely followed, external consultant facilitated discussions with top x% of the organization. Regardless of how one goes about articulating the future desired state, there are a few must-haves for them to see the light of the day:

  • Communication: No amount of communication is ever enough as long it is backed by action, especially from the top (visible) leaders. This is time to “walk the talk”.
  • Celebration: Celebrate early wins, create role models.
  • Reinforcement: Linkages to key processes like promotion, assignment of plum roles etc. go a long way in reinforcing people beliefs in it.

Each organization must independently and honestly assess what values they want to stand for as opposed to blindly copying those of others. Whether openness, or client focus, it does not matter what specific values you choose for your organization. What matters more is to have a set of values that define you and that you follow them through.

By Prashant Bhatnagar, Director

This post was originally published on March 7, 2012.

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