Understanding Culture, the Pulse of Your Organisation
Culture is like the pulse of an organisation. It always provides us an interesting cue to help understand the organisation, says Rajesh Nair
It is very often we hear the spiels: “Our key success factor is our culture!”; “There is something wrong with our culture”; “We want people who will fit into our culture!”; “We are like that only!” Most management pundits glorify culture as the difference between pioneers and laggards or winners and ‘also-rans’. Culture is like the pulse of an organisation. It cannot by itself give you a lot of information. But it acts as sort of a window which helps one peek into the portals of an organisation. It helps you ask questions to delve deeper into the institutional psyche at any given moment like what went wrong or what could be the probable causes? With the mindset of organisations moving from ‘asset-based’ to ‘people-based’ outlook, this discussion would help one guess about the character of organisations. Like a lot of management subjects, ‘culture’ of an organisation can be best understood through questions and reflective observation than through definitive answers.
There is also a general tendency to play down culture as something esoteric and intangible, which is also a popular and convenient excuse. While we often offer clichés and banal statements to describe it, it always provides us interesting cues to help understand the organisation. The better you understand it, the better you can leverage it to help build a high performance organisation.
Edgar Schein, the ‘popular guru’ of culture, defines it as:
“A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
“…a basic set of assumptions that defines for us what we pay attention to, what things mean, and how to react emotionally to what is going on, and what actions to take in various kinds of situations.”
“…is neither innate nor purely driven by strategy, rather culture is learned and therefore, can be changed.”
The interesting thing about culture is that it can never be clearly defined by the people bound by it – it is difficult to ‘see the forest through the trees’. It is also best to employ an iterative method to ask questions and understand the connections between various symptoms and draw a set of link diagrams that effectively help one figure out a couple of causal factors.
Management science itself has developed a few tools like Culture web analysis, Social network analysis etc. to categorise and affinitize various issues and present to you a diagnostic chart that broadly describes the enterprise’s cultural, organisational alignments to various people and strategic issues. But an easier way would be to answer a series of questions internally like:
How do we respond to situations?
When there is a critical incident in an organisation, it is often the best time to observe the character of the organisation. Read these actions from the organisational context. Do we always adhere to a set of documented procedures? Or, are we encouraging our managers to take the best course of action that deems fit to them? Are we driven by selling more or are we conscious to create a work ethic around conceptualising great products? Are we focused on the bottom line or is it the top line that excites us? Some of these questions seem to have a right answer. But the more you ponder and look for evidence you will stumble onto trends.
What are the perceived winning behaviours in our organisation?
What kinds of actions are applauded in the organisation? Who are the ‘rock stars’ in the organisation? What do we see in our role models? What are the attributes that we admire in them? One should also be cautioned against falling for stereotyping like – engineers like technology, HR hates numbers, marketing department is more aggressive, customer representatives don’t want challenges, the IT department is inflexible etc.
How are we perceived from outside?
It always helps to let an external stakeholder speak about how the organisation is perceived from outside. It is often the characteristics of leaders that are clearly visible to the outsider. There is also the argument that the leader is the ‘showcase’ of the culture of an organisation. But the impression gets formed not just through experiences but also through articles, word of mouth and the media hyperbole. This is another reason why companies spend enormous amounts on public relations and announce seemingly right things in public. However, the important element here is the front-line staff. They are often the touchpoint of organisations for the outside world. They can make or mar the image of an organisation. Their recruitment and training is paramount and has to be aligned with the organisational ethos.
Based on what I have seen in the last two decades, these are some great ways to build a high performance culture in your organisation
1. Have a shared vision - More than a statement on the newsletter, a framed picture on the wall or an organisation screensaver, a simple clear statement conveying what the company exists for is important and, more importantly, offers something that is meaningful to every employee. Some great examples are that of the Tatas – ‘To improve the quality of life of the communities we serve’, and P&G’s – ‘To improve the life of world’s consumers’
2. Reinforce the right behaviours – Have a clear reward policy where employees who do the ‘right thing’ are lauded and rewarded and made an example of. Likewise, one also has to take a tough stance when there are breaches of trust and integrity
3. Create informal communication avenues – A good newsletter is often not enough, one has to encourage employees to discuss the organisation by leveraging social media, group chats and informal get-togethers. Water cooler discussions and gossips should not be dismissed. They are a valuable source of information as well
4. Look at culture from the organisational context – It is important to be aware of what your employees think of your structure, processes, salaries, incentives etc. It is this context that outlines your culture and what needs to change before the mindsets.
5. Cultural change is a gradual process – Do not try too many things together. Cultural change needs concerted thinking and detailed interventions.
There is no prescription for cultivating a culture. While leading by example is the most common solution, it is not always easy. The additional challenge is the transient workforce. Attritions are at appalling levels and it becomes more and more important to have formal mechanisms to teach and reinforce key attributes. Whether you like it or not, you cannot ignore it.