Starting Culture Conversations

We never speak about workplace culture when things are going well. Typically, we feel the need to improve culture when the recent past has been rocky or the future looks bleak. Revenues are sliding, costs are rising disproportionately, customer complaints are trending upward or industry regulations have changed and we don’t know how to respond. Maybe you detected an internal fraud or serious misconduct issue that would have seemed impossible to have occurred only a couple of years ago.

So much is written about culture today. Much of what I read sits at the conceptual level, offering very little practical advice. The success stories are interesting to read, but for the most part they focus on major multi-nationals who invested millions. My clients find much of this difficult to translate to their own experience and immediate challenges.

Dealing with organisational culture starts with courage to have difficult conversations around the management table. The trouble is, when we discuss organisational culture the conversation naturally and quickly flows to leadership, or at least it should. These discussions can quickly start to feel deeply threatening for management teams. We therefore speak in generalities, not prepared to name or own the real issues at play. We don’t want to offend and we definitely don’t want the focus to turn to our own department.

Management teams are inherently conflicted in these situations. There is a power imbalance with the CEO sitting at the table. Inevitably, whatever the CEO says carries far more weight than any other person in the room. Once the CEO speaks, boundaries are created around what is discussed and emphasised from that point onward.

Each person around the table is massively invested in keeping their jobs, so is unlikely to suggest anything radical that might destabilise their own position. The default response is to turn attention and the blow torch to middle managers or front line supervisors and staff. Phew….Crisis averted! And by playing out this charade, which occurs time and time again, you guarantee that the top team has just sabotaged any real chance of developing a constructive response to improving culture.

Some practical tips on getting a conversation started on culture:

  1. The top team must acknowledge that workplace culture starts with them. Poor workplace culture is a leadership problem and changing culture requires a change in leadership behaviour.
  2. Get an expert facilitator involved in framing culture conversations. The CEO should not lead the early discussions. Too heavy a shadow is cast over the group by the CEO leading the conversation. The facilitator must model the constructive yet direct approach that the group needs to learn and hold them true to any behavioural commitments that they make. If the facilitator becomes too chummy with members of the group, then it’s time for a new facilitator.
  3. Over time, the facilitator fades away and the CEO assumes the facilitation role, but that is only after new rules of senior team engagement have been developed, practiced and reviewed.
  4. Senior leaders should replicate what happens in the top team with their own businesses or departments. Whether the General Manager likes it or not, they have to learn and practice exactly the same skills that the CEO is attempting to master. Later, middle managers and team leaders must learn these skills and apply in their own contexts.
  5. The early facilitation process must include the team agreeing on a way of tabling and constructively discussing difficult issues which inhibit the delivery of your strategy. It is not a forum for pet peeves.
  6. Agree on the information that the top team needs to see on a regular basis that gives a holistic picture of culture across the company. It is usually a mosaic of data across multiple domains.
  7. Find a way to measure culture. Until it is measured and reported, then it risks remaining an esoteric subject and will be abandoned when things get tough.

An experienced and high profile business leader once told me that you can look in every corner of the organisation for the clues to improving culture, but of all the things that must change “it’s probably you”. That remains a very good place to start a culture conversation.

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