So you have done the company survey, or listened by the coffee machine. It seems like the jungle drums are beating, and the natives are restless. The executive team gets together and asks themselves “How did we get like this?”, and wonder at the emerging signs that the culture and engagement strategies have failed.
What organisations often find is that the company is not living its stated values, the staff are hardly engaged and the culture has devolved to something just more civil than a cage fight. And you wondered where your performance had gone?
Does this sound familiar?
Too often issues with engagement and culture are identified after these problems are having a real impact on the business and its results. So many organisations find themselves in trouble and wonder both how they got there, and how to get themselves out.
Unfortunately, many organisations find themselves in the perfect storm of their own creation – poor culture, low engagement and poor performance. They are too busy thrashing about trying to weather the storm to focus on what is important and lead their organisations to a different alternative. When people are in this storm, it takes a lot to encourage them to change – and for any change to stick.
The people within the organisation are locked into survival mode evidenced by patterns and habits of poor performance, often cemented by fear of doing anything different. ‘Safety first’ can mean taking no risks, and every change, even a small one, may feel like a massive risk to someone operating defensively.
Leadership often descends into ‘agitation management’- where they initiate all sorts of projects to re-establish a feeling of control. Each project is started with great fanfare – offering the leaders the illusion of ‘doing something’ and feeling on control, however so many of these projects are never allowed to fully run their course because completion means things can be judged and measured, which can be risky business when things are not going so well (and we have another ‘new idea’ that we want to follow that we feel really positive about…)
Imagine companies like this. Leadership, staff, customers and wider communities all suffer. There is no sweet spot (only sweat spots!).
Isn’t it better to intervene before it gets to this, rather than have to wonder “how did it get this bad”? In fact, when culture and engagement are ignored and no clear purpose is used to guide the business, things can get quite bad before anyone is brave enough to broach the subject.
How often is culture and engagement the ‘elephant in the room’?
Some of the reasons organisations find themselves in this perfect storm:
Every organisation that has either made it through the perfect storm or is currently battling away to get out of it has their own unique tale of how it came to be. However, underneath the stories are often some common threads that can be seen and understood to help you avoid your storm. Here are some of the common ways that organisations fall into the perfect storm of poor performance, low engagement and poor culture:
Legacy – the nature of the business has changed, but not the culture and engagement. Businesses that built their successes in different eras ( Industrial Age, for example) have a culture on production efficiency and effectiveness. People are often seen as ‘resources’ that need to be tightly managed against efficient and effective processes. As we have seen across a range of industries ( for example, the car manufacturing industry), this concept of product and people is so ingrained in the organisation that massive transformation is required to shift it.
Times have changed, and now in a world gone social and highly customer centric, the ‘industrial’ approach is now out of step with what customers and employees will accept. Often the senior leadership is (unfortunately) part of the legacy. New fresh blood enters the organisation below, but the ‘old guard’ keep doing what they have always done, even when everything has changed. This drives a wedge in the organisation which exacerbates the differences, creating the conditions for the emergence of the perfect storm of poor culture, low engagement and poor results.
Focusing on the ‘what’ and ‘how’, failing to connect deeply to the purpose. When our purpose is to find a community and to serve a deeper purpose that they have, we will always have customers. However, organisations often stumble upon their customers and serving their customers needs as they create a thing, or establish a process, which serves the customer almost as an afterthought. Organisations can believe that their ‘what’ or their ‘how’ is most important, and remain fixated upon this, even though the customers’ needs and purposes can now be served through other means.
Consider a person who needed transport. Selling horses and buggies was great until the car was introduced. Now cars are evolving to driverless shared systems. Selling horses and carts is no longer relevant to the community. Or consider how the Uber model has disrupted the taxi industry – the process has changed, but providing transportation services for hire that better serves the needs of the customers still fits with the customers’ needs and purpose. Organisations that do not have a clearly stated and valuable purpose create cultures around ‘things’ and processes. They get entrenched In what they do, and build a fixed culture around it. This almost guarantees that they get left behind – which impacts performance and engagement, and teamed up with the inflexible culture leads to the perfect storm. Focusing on the customer’s emerging needs and how best to address them can allow the culture and engagement processes to flex in line with emerging needs.
Fear – Power and fear are staples in many organisations. When the culture runs on highly competitive internal games; when secrecy, backstabbing and creating ‘safety’ is the primary objective of the staff, then the culture and engagement will suffer greatly. A lot of this comes down to the top leadership – not in terms of what they say (anyone can say ‘we want a happy, collaborative team’) but what they do. I once was running a strategic review with a board of a company, where they were describing their ‘values’ – things like trust, authenticity, empowerment, etc. One of the directors took a call and had to leave the room to speak to a member of his team, and the way he yelled at that poor staff member (which we could hear clearly from inside the board room) was the antithesis of these values. Leaders have to walk the talk, because people focus on what the leaders do more than what they say. As the leader walked back into the boardroom, it was clear that all the ‘talk’ in the boardroom was wasted. Whilst the leaders work from the basis of power and exercising fear, nothing will change.
The ideas that fear and power give either safety or high performance is just wrong. Great communication and living demonstration of values is what is needed, but it is the actions and attitudes of the leader creating uncertainty and fear which can have a massive negative impact upon culture and engagement. Often, acting in open and even vulnerable ways is not in the comfort zones of leaders. If they are not equipped with the skills, both practically and emotionally, to act in ways to support or enhance a positive culture, a poor culture will begin to emerge. Habit patterns which entrench poor culture,engagement and performance will maintain the perfect storm.
Poor standards – when it is OK for one standard to be broken, people unconsciously ask what else is flexible. When people are not held accountable for their behaviours by their peers, when people are not called out for breaking standards or acting against the culture, then this becomes acceptable and opens the floodgates for others to test where the rules really apply. Having everyone accountable (yes, everyone, including the leaders!) to set standards of behaviour, and having a culture of calling misbehaviour to account protects an organisation from descending into an established culture of selfish, non-accountable behaviours. When people are not clear on what the standards are it makes it difficult to hold them accountable to them. People then operate in self-interest which destroys culture and engagement.
Mind reading. Sometimes the leadership is incredibly clear on what they want as a culture, how they want engagement to be and how performance can can enhanced. However, they expect the staff to be ‘mind readers’. Without communication, demonstration and reinforcement, they expect the staff to know what they want and what they are thinking. Often, the leaders want to achieve great things, but the lack of true connection to the employees means that this is not fully transmitted down the line. Often staff will read bulletins from the desk of the CEO and simply wait in the current status quo until they see real reason to change or act. When the leaders communicate, demonstrate and reinforce what they really want, people can get it.
Responsive not responsible. When an organisation is overly responsive to what others are doing, rather than being responsible for making the right choices and responses to changes in the market, engagement, culture and performance can all suffer. By chasing after the changes that others make (especially competitors), the focus shifts from the purpose and leveraging the ‘what makes us special’ to doing what others do, and often being only second rate at it. The key is to have a clear sense of identity and make changes which are valuable to the organisation. Making continuous changes to follow a market or competitor can create uncertainty within your organisation, can stop people focusing on what you are really good at, and creates a culture of continuous destabilisation.
Comparative – it is useful to benchmark against others, but are you really going to run an organisation like Apple/ Google/ Zappos?. Being a realist about how your organisation operates, it’s own financial and political constraints and what it wants to achieve is important. Look to take lessons from others, but it’s better to aim to be a better version of yourself rather be someone else. Being defeatist because you are not like the poster-boys (but demanding people in the organisation behave like it) is a recipe for disaster.
The other extreme is when leaders compare to others and say ‘At least we are not as bad as that mob!’ It is not about how good you are doing relative to others who may be terrible, but how can you be the best that you can be? Comparisons too far upward or downward create the perfect storm by shifting the focus and expectations to the wrong things.
Subcultures begin to dominate. Organisations are made up of many parts- each with its own subculture. Allowing subcultures to stray too far from the desired company culture is a recipe for disaster, as it can create a situation where this subculture becomes dominant within the rest of the business. Consider that you do not want your sales people acting like accountants, or the lawyers acting like marketers. Each needs its own subculture of how they behave, which serves the bigger organisation purpose and culture. However, they also need to be properly constrained and focused. I have seen instances where a ‘blokes’ sales culture has flooded the rest of the organisation, or where an ultra conservative legal team’s culture has negatively impacted marketing and sales teams. Understanding, directing and managing subcultures is critical for avoiding the perfect storm.
As you think about your organisation, which of the above is already affecting the culture, engagement and performance, or which could be the area where things could start to turn bad?
Understanding what may cause issues is useful in diagnosing the problem, and suggesting where to start to weather – then recover from – the perfect storm. It is critical to start doing something to make a difference to the way the organisation operates to break the perfect storm as soon as possible. However, just ‘doing stuff’ without working out what you really need to do can take you straight back to ‘agitation management’, and simply continue your cycle.
Understanding what drives culture and engagement, and how to rapidly leverage things these to drive performance enhancements is critical to success. Significant research has been done which points to simple, practical steps that leaders and organisations can take, even when in the ‘perfect storm’ to change culture and enhance engagement.
Often, even when leaders have great ideas, the perfect storm creates fear and rigidity which can make new ways of doing things even more challenging. This can become a tipping point for the business – back to health or out of business?
How is your organisation performing?
What could trigger your own ‘perfect storm’ of poor culture, low engagement and poor performance?
What will you do about it?