This is the third part in a series of articles that will set out the A to Z of organisation development: the principles and practices, the tools and techniques and the past and present thought leaders that have shaped the field.
In fact, this part is itself in three parts. Today, I’ll cover Culture. The second part to follow is a beautiful blog post by freelance OD practitioner Lucy Thompson, who will reflect on creating the right climate for culture to flourish. Finally, later in the week, I’ll turn to change, which was in part inspired by my former colleague Francis Lake. Francis is Head of OD at Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banking Group; he reminded me of the importance of the emotional response to change and the need to think long-term when planning change.
Many other people have commented via LinkedIn or by contacting me directly on what they would like to see included in the A to Z of OD. Big thanks to all – just like Lucy and Francis today, you’ll get a namecheck when your ideas come up in the alphabet! And if you want to guest blog a topic or thought leader, then let me know. You’re more than welcome to get involved in the conversation.
C is for Culture
“Is this the real life; is this just fantasy?” so a certain Mr Mercury asked the world in 1975. At some point in the Eighties, organisations started asking themselves the same question about their own existence, their own cultures. Academics argued that organisations could have their own distinct cultures, their own shared values, beliefs and norms, and that there would be competitive advantage from aligning these with the needs of their stakeholders. What followed is a global change consulting industry now worth in the region on US$250bn per annum.
A fair chunk of the consulting industry is about changing organisational culture. I shouldn’t really complain as I am a very small part of this industry myself. Changing the culture is only possible if culture is real, or in other words that you believe the way people live, work, interact with each other and come together to achieve something jointly creates and re-creates the “ever-changing world in which we’re living” (McCartney… apologies, I seem to be stuck in some sort of 70s pop music frame today).
If we believe that is the case, then culture is real and if it is real, it can be managed.
How do you change culture?
Like any other change, a common approach to managing culture is to diagnose the current state (using tools such as the Culture Web), envisage a desired state and plan to move from the current reality to the new, future reality. Much of a culture change plan tends to surround influencing the role of leaders to develop the culture through symbolic means, most notably through their behaviours (see: B is for Behaviours).
And so, many OD practitioners encourage organisations to set standards of behaviours through scripting them (“this is what we are looking for”; “this is what we are not looking for”; that sort of thing) and embedding them into individual objective setting, performance review and personal development planning. Managers’ and leaders’ behaviours – such as more participative management styles, colleague engagement, recognition and rewards and encouraging personal development – both enact and symbolise the culture.
This approach has become pervasive across all sectors. It uses culture management as a tool to advance organisational effectiveness, to stimulate motivation and to create linkages between the organisation and the employee – a sense of belonging, often referred to as a sense of family.
And when used purposively, it seems to work; it benefits both the employee and the organisation; and hence the customer and other stakeholders; and hence the primary purpose of the organisation.
What could go wrong?
If culture can be managed, it can be manipulated too. I’m not sure organisations are like families. Organisations still tend to favour tasks over relationships, they still discourage emotional expression. And membership of organisations is less permanent than in real families, particularly during periods of organisational change. Power and leadership differ significantly, and family members are less likely to mistrust each other. Also, families are predicated on Parent/Child relationships. Many organisations work like that too, whereas the culture we seek in organisations is Adult. Oftentimes, ‘Family’ is a poor metaphor for the organisational culture we seek.
To make things worse, employees who believe in the team-family metaphor can become colonised by their organisations. The very same organisations who may then have to announce redundancy programmes in pursuit of benefiting one stakeholder group (shareholders/governors) over another (employees).
In the face of these conflicting messages, employees become ambivalent: on the one hand believing the organisation is adding value to their lives beyond their salary, whilst harbouring fantasies of autonomy and other forms of escape from the psychic prison in which they have become trapped. This manifests as worsening performance, lower motivation, and a desire for Work-Life Balance. Work-Life Balance has become a socially acceptable form of dissent. Organisations that espouse Work-Life balance can inadvertently make employees anxious. I suspect Work-Life Integration is the antidote to anxiety.
The only way to avoid this risk is to ensure the espoused culture is real, which means it must be lived day-to-day. You must favour relationships as well as tasks, encourage emotional expression, flatten power hierarchies to become more democratic, build trust through Adult relationships and encourage Work-Life integration. This creates the right climate for culture to flourish.