Still see culture change as discretionary?

ivory tower

There are plenty of definitions of organisation culture.

But put simply it means “the way we do things here”.

So, peeping out from the C suite, how’s it looking down there?

Are you really seeing what we’re seeing?

As I said in Brand Engagement, for the CEO the world consists of smiles and fresh paint. It’s hard to get a straight answer during even the friendliest of walkabouts and it’s lonely and more than a tad disconcerting as a result.

Well it is, for the wise.

It wasn’t that long ago that I had to face the ignominy of the then CEO of an NHS trust, throwing our painstakingly assembled report into employee engagement levels within his organisation, into the bin. He claimed not to recognise the detailed accounts of institutional negativity and passive aggression within the workaday ranks.

Suffice to say, neither he nor his board of largely interim execs took any action.

Within 6 months he was gone.

It cost the organisation a fortune they could ill afford, poisoning the well of employee goodwill for years to come.

At least he left eventually.

Most worrying however, is how many leaders like him are still in their jobs?

Based on that experience, I’m far from surprised by the succession of scandals that have rocked one of our most treasured institutions and dare I say, beloved national brands,  ranging from chronic mis-management through to patient abuse and falsification of customer feedback. These are dark days indeed for many parts of the health service and the millions of great people who devote their lives to it. But there’s little doubt that leadership culture is largely to blame for the conveyor belt of issues. Yet what is being done about it when investment in organisation development just isn’t prioritized?

A few years before that, I briefly worked with a director from one of what has since become one of the more notorious FS brands. We had a customer service focused brief yet it became increasingly obvious that most of the management team had been gradually disempowered and struggled under the weight of quarterly targets in return for greatly increased pay and rations. The consequence? An “up or out” culture displaced the career banking, risk-averse legacy culture almost overnight. And not in a good way!

Yet when we pointed this out, the senior directors claimed to have the situation under control while their PR depts flooded the airwaves with talk of integrity.

The brand disasters, personal brand disasters and economic collapse which erupted for the next five years were, with hindsight, to be expected as the gulf between the promise making and the experience of employees and customers grew and grew. Despite talk of recovery within the sector, I remain to be convinced that the lessons have been fully learned.

But  investment in culture change is still seen as discretionary spend.

Make sense to you?

And what of the scandals repeatedly rocking the energy sector, the horse meat scandal or record low levels of trust when it comes to public institutions like the political parties or major religions etc? Well, as Robert Peston so eloquently put it recently when talking up the virtues of family businesses; “Customers are sick and tired of being lied to and let down just so that faceless corporates can make another short-term buck for shareholders. They are desperate for a relationship with organisations that give a damn about their espoused values and at least have some sense of longevity and accountability”.

How people crave authenticity and suppliers delivering what they promise.

Yet how often is culture evaluated at board level and what plans are in place to cultivate appropriate and sustainable behaviours?

I think you know the answer.

We may just be emerging from a downturn and an employer’s market where shareholders have just been grateful to stay in the game and employees have lived in fear of their jobs. Yet it’s a little known fact that more organisations go bust coming out of a recession than going into one as the employees reach their tipping point owing to the ongoing neglect of the people processes and plumbing. This malaise becomes abundantly clear when they are asked to turn up the performance heat, and simply can’t.

Understanding and developing an appropriate organisation culture is arguably more important than generating sales as there’s a direct relationship between sustaining performance and the behaviour of employees. As we enter the phase where organisations try to get ahead of the game, enthusiasm, energy, innovation and discretionary effort are all vital.

Employee engagement isn’t a magic elixir, it’s just the point of initiation.

Yet engagement figures are still worryingly low.

Leader-led, values-based culture development is the key to re-energising, re-focusing and re-mobilising the disenchanted.

But the first step towards enlightenment is admitting that you have a problem in the first pace. And, right now, there can be few who don’t.

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