Workplace culture – your organisation’s superpower, or its kryptonite?

By Carla Ewin

April 29, 2021

(Image: Adobe/Gorodenkoff)

Guest columnist Carla Ewin explores why we often ignore our superpower.

If there is one thing we have seen clearly and repeatedly, it is what goes wrong when leaders don’t monitor and prioritise workplace culture.

The ‘way we work’ or the ‘way we do things around here’ is just as important as what we do. ‘The way we work’ is widely recognised as a critical component that makes an organisation productive, collaborative, adaptable, innovative and sustainable.

Then why is culture so often the last thing we prioritise – why do we wait until something goes wrong before we understand its power?

The first time I noticed this was while working in an investment bank in London – yes, it was just after the financial crisis and every bank’s risk culture was under the microscope. Those responsible were trying to understand how the relationships and engagement between the back office, traders, shareholders and customers had broken down so catastrophically.

How had they all missed the signs, ignored the warnings, been so unaware of the escalation. Suddenly people were asking how this could have gone so badly wrong, and why. I was also very interested in the question of why now, knowing that if culture had been an ongoing focus and priority like strategy, then this could have been avoided altogether.

Why did it have to get to the point of broken – to the point of financial collapse and ruin – before it became a priority?

Here are a few reasons leaders neglect culture – in a way they would never neglect strategy:

  1. Despite the rise in awareness about the importance of culture, for many it is still perceived as something intangible or too soft to manage and monitor, and to deliver hard results.
  2. It can be challenging. A culture review holds a mirror up to how staff interact and treat each other, what they do and don’t value and how they respond and react to leadership and leaders within an organisation.
  3. This can make people, and especially leaders, feel uncomfortable or vulnerable which is a state most of us try to avoid,
  4. It requires commitment. Reshaping your culture does not happen overnight. It requires a deep understanding of the way things work, a clear direction on what you want your organisation to be and then deliberate and meaningful actions that are carefully sequenced and managed. It also is not something that is done once and then forgotten about. You can and should track and monitor your culture on an ongoing basis so you can adjust accordingly, so you are aware of what your staff experience on a day-to-day basis and get their invaluable input into how it could be continuously improved.
  5.  Shaping culture is an inherently collective challenge – one that leaders can’t do to, or for, their teams. While priorities and values can and should be guided, it is ultimately the team, with the right time, space, and sponsorship, who will come together and fill in the picture of ‘how we work around here’. People need to be invited, encouraged, comfortable to contribute, and in the right frame of mind. This process can be challenging for more hierarchical organisations, or for those where collaboration is not a habitual way of operating.
  6. Culture is embedded and reinforced by everything in an organisation. It is difficult to see from the inside when the culture is no longer serving the needs of the organisation, and takes courage to push against the status quo to investigate and potentially challenge the way things have been done ‘forever’. It often needs to be broken before anyone can see that it needs fixing.

Regardless of your resistance or how uncomfortable it makes us feel, culture is an opportunity that cannot be ignored. It is the key that unlocks the potential of your organisation, your staff and you as a leader.

The time to understand your culture is now. You may be pleasantly surprised at how well your culture supports your strategy, or you may discover that there are parts that are broken, providing you with the source of a range of organisational problems you have been trying to solve.

If, on a scale of ‘Superpower – Kryptonite’, you are unsure how your culture is impacting your organisation, do the following quick health check:

Consider the following – and answer honestly:

  1. Can your people accurately articulate your strategic objectives and how they contribute to the achievement of these?
  2. What is celebrated and recognised in the organisation?
    • Is the focus on outputs or outcomes? Is there any recognition of ‘how’ these are delivered?
  3. What happens when things go wrong?
    • Is it important to find out who made a mistake, or understand why a mistake was made and fix it?
  4. What are the long-held stories that are shared in the organisation?
    • What do they say about what is important?
  5. Are your people encouraged and empowered to use their professional judgement to make decisions?
  6. As a leader, how do you role model your organisation’s values every day?
  7. How would your people describe working in this organisation?

Now, and importantly – ask a few of your people these same questions, and really listen to what they say.

Their answers will help you to identify where there might be some misalignment between your vision for your team’s culture, and the reality. From there, keep the dialogue going. Culture is collective, and you’ll need your team engaged at every step as you work to realign ‘the way things are’.

If you’re yet to undertake any deliberate action on culture you are not alone. The good news is that culture holds powerful influence at all levels of the organisation, from team to enterprise – and if you have your doubts, start small, but start!

One of the great culture change gifts, is that this is change the workforce welcomes, and if they are effectively engaged in the process, and you put the right mechanisms in place, they will drive the changes for you. Once you move into that positive cycle, with culture recognised as a positive driver of strategy and engagement, you’ll feel the difference every day.

Culture can be your organisation’s superpower or its kryptonite.

As a leader, which do you choose?


The hybrid workplace raises the question of culture

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1 year ago

Thank you for this article, clearly, simply articulated. The 7 questions, to be answered honestly 😄, provide a straight forward way to respond to the challenge of culture. More on this issue please.

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