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Shakil Butt

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Does company culture happen by accident or by design?

Culture doesn’t just ‘happen’, we create it. Are you in control of yours?

Culture can be defined in a number of ways and viewed through various lenses. A simple definition of organisational culture is, ‘this is how things are in the workplace’ – which is true to a point. There are some that would suggest that ‘it is what it is’ as if in itself, culture has some form of free will separate from the people within organisations. The way ‘things’ are is not some accident. Rather the way ‘things’ are is by design, as a consequence of decisions made and actions taken but also as a result of an absence of decisions taken and inaction.

Long gone are the days of releasing a press statement to counter any internal challenges. Organisations can no longer control the narrative.

The point is, culture is created and shaped more often than not, and allowed to form by permission from the top. This includes the sub cultures within organisations that again, are often reflections of specific areas of the business or the people leading those functions.

Like anything of real strategic importance, culture needs to be owned by the leadership team, measured and reported upon. Leaving it to chance is a risk and, like any risk, needs to understood and be mitigated against using business resources and capabilities. Is it costly to manage culture? Absolutely but far less costly to not actively manage it.

The gap between saying and doing

If the leadership team are always focused on the bottom line and that’s what gets rewarded then the culture that gets created becomes one where revenue is maximised and costs are minimised in the pursuit of profits and efficiencies. This in turn can create harmful behaviours, such as the sales teams trying to ‘close the deal’ by ‘any means necessary’, encouraging competition internally, thereby possibly undermining team work and collaboration. It may also create perceptions that they are of greater importance compared to other parts of the organisation, resulting in increased employee relations and conflict.

The actual culture of how ‘things are’ exposes what is really valued by an organisation and how people behave beyond the well-crafted values statement or company handbook. By comparison, values and policies are easier to formulate but culture takes a greater degree of effort. Some organisations list their values with the ‘usual suspects’ such as trust, transparency, integrity etc and then have policies that make no reference to the values or have an employee life cycle that is devoid of those values. This can be exemplified when an organisation makes the claim to be a learning organisation but then has a blame culture. Another example is stating that its people are its most important resource (sound familiar?) but then when faced with financial pressures reverts always to redundancies as the first option rather than being a last resort.

Long gone are the days of releasing a press statement to counter any internal challenges. Organisations can no longer control the narrative – there are other influencers now. We live in a world where a single tweet or Glassdoor review can harm an organisation’s reputation impacting its position and business interests.

A year of change

During 2020, the pandemic and thereafter the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted certain cultures across organisations and society as a whole. Lip service and applause has been the reward of the NHS and care workers being told repeatedly that they are of paramount importance whilst their experience is one of facing austerity measures, being put in harm’s way and being underpaid for the lifesaving work these heroes actually do.

The tragic murder of George Floyd has underscored the systemic racism wherein a culture has been created over hundreds of years that allows one human being to be marginalised and devalued by another to the point of having disregard for that person’s life and dignity. It is interesting to see the official response from some police departments stating that the ‘knee on the neck technique’ is not taught but yet it is used by their officers because ‘that’s how things are’. That’s how norms were introduced to those officers by other officers and so on. These were sadly not just isolated cases.

A new world of work

HR has a massive role to play in supporting culture creation and culture change. For some HR practitioners, however, this has been limited to articulating values and communicating them, as well as writing policies and processes. Having values stated, polices and processes will not in themselves create culture. If organisational culture is how ‘things’ really are in a workplace then that can be at odds with the stated values or policies and processes.

People and culture are increasingly being recognised as having importance, as evident in the growing number of HR directors and chief human resource officers that are now being rebranded as the ‘people and culture director’ or ‘people and culture officer’. Is it simply semantics? Alternative terminology? For some, it will be just a different title but it has the potential to be so much more. Actions always speak volumes and for HR this is a time to think and act differently supporting the leadership team in creating a new world of work where organisational culture represents what the organisation actually states it values.

Interested in this topic? Read Culture transformation: changing behaviours in the post-pandemic workplace.

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Shakil Butt

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Read more from Shakil Butt

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