I frequently read of people in organisations seeking cultural change.
Actually, I am a little surprised by the number of organisations seeking cultural change, and Cultural Change Agents. What is this magical “cultural change” that so many seek, might I ask? I assume that the leadership believes that there is something about the culture in their organisation that needs changing. Yep, that sounds right. Whatever the culture that now exists, needs to be replaced by something different, a “better” culture!
I frequently see these symptoms in my consulting career: complaining, dissatisfaction, absenteeism and questionable engagement. Often there is subtle disengagement that shows up as boredom, ease of distraction and a frequent recourse to variations of learned helplessness. When some employees feel pushed to engage, their responses are often have a barb to them.
Research conducted by Gallup poll examined the true cost of disengaged employees, with staggering results. For starters their research showed a whopping 70% of American employees are slowing economic growth by not working to their full potential. Of those 70%, 52% aren’t meeting their potential, because they are disengaged, and another 18% are actively disengaged.
Let me take a detour here for a moment. I wonder just quietly, about somebody’s assessment of what your “potential” is. Of course it’s usually measured against what you can do (and indeed must do) better based on some statistical standards of comparison. Or perhaps it’s imported from the experience of machines that have been assembled to deliver a certain output, and now are not delivering it. Many examples of this language exist – for machines. Computers running slow and need something (an antivirus program?) to optimise their speed. Internal combustion engines that are built to consume “x” litres of fuel per 100km, but actually consume “x+2” litres per 100km. And when they don’t deliver that output, we simply replace them. You get the picture.
Exploring the word culture is also fascinating! Look it up on the internet and you get a range of definitions that include values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Culture determines how employees describe where they work, how they understand the business, and how they see themselves as part of the organisation. Interestingly, culture can also be the driver of decisions, actions and ultimately the overall performance of the organisation. As per my training as an Agricultural Scientist, culture also happens to be the substrate in a Petrie dish from which specific colonies of microbes are encouraged to grow! One might conclude that the organisms that grow best are those which have the best relationship with the substrate. The substrate meets the needs of the organisms and vice versa. If one wants different organisms to grow, one changes the composition of the substrate. Of course within a group of organisms, each relationship is also influenced by the inherent capacity (or genetic makeup) of individual organisms within the colony to do just that! Extending this analogy to Agronomy, companies have invested billions of dollars in the research and development of breeds that can better cope with environmental conditions such as resistance to pests. When I look at a field of wheat or sorghum every single plant is growing at its capacity to express its genetic potential within the prevailing environmental conditions. Nothing more!
Returning to the topic at hand, many workplaces, (communities) are experiencing symptoms that suggest some functionality issues within the organisation.. Some symptoms (e.g., disengagement), were mentioned earlier in this article. Is there something else going on at a deeper level? I wonder if disengagement is symptomatic of some degree of loss of a human’s capacity to relate, preferring instead to disengage. Perhaps the level of culture of an organisation settles at whatever level it’s allowed to! Maybe there are unseen forces that influence the “organisational culture” to find its own level, to take its own transient shape. Do organisations have the sensitivity to recognise where they are culturally, sense the culture they desire and take mindful steps to cultivate, manage and promote it effectively…one step at a time. One of my greatest teachers, W. Edwards Deming, said the "the system that people work in and the interaction with (and between) people may account for 90 or 95% of performance". My take on this is we are an age of encountering huge struggles with "interactions". Interactions between people and interactions between people and the systems they are placed in and expected to perform. I see this everywhere.
What’s your experience of cultural change? What’s worked well for you? And what was the context of your experience? I would love to hear from anyone with experiential knowledge ...