Two myths about organisation culture, and what to do about them

March 15, 2022
Arjav Chakravarti

‘Culture’ is a term that nonprofits are using more and more. But what exactly is organisation culture? And how can it help attract, engage, and retain employees?

The term ‘organisation culture’ has gained popularity because leaders at all kinds of organisations understand that culture is linked to impact, performance, and well-being. Culture can take strategy from a carefully worded document to a living reality. The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have seen the ‘Great Reflection’ sweep through the workforce—an evaluation of life, meaning, and work at the individual level, which has manifested globally in the ‘Great Resignation’ wherein large numbers of people have quit or switched employment, rebalanced personal and work priorities, and refused to relocate back to cities or work full-time from an office.

As organisations strive to emerge from the pandemic, they are discovering that culture is now a critical factor in attracting, retaining, and engaging talented people at all levels and in all roles. In the development sector this is as true for large, well-established nonprofits as it is for rapidly growing social enterprises, not to mention foundations and companies that provide CSR funds.

What is organisation culture?

A number of definitions exist but a favourite of mine states that culture is “the way things are done around here”. To paraphrase a vivid illustration by David J. Friedman, once a new employee has attended the new-hire orientation and listened to everything that the organisation’s leadership and HR have said about values, purpose, policies, and employee benefits, they go to the canteen, sit down with a couple of old-timers, and ask, “What’s this place like?” The answer to that question is the organisation’s culture.

An individual’s well-being, satisfaction, and performance depend on their everyday experience, that is, the behaviours of the people in the organisation. This alone should be enough reason for leadership and HR teams to design a series of interventions to encourage desired behaviours. These are some examples:

  • Collaboration leads to better outcomes, so physical workspaces and even online meetings are designed with this in mind. This is why cubicles or partitions have disappeared from many an office, and why IT is HR’s new best friend in deploying apps to virtually replicate the in-person experience.
  • Reduced hierarchy encourages better ideas and ownership, so the organisation structure is kept flat, with few middle managers between senior leaders and frontline staff. People also address each other by their first names.
  • Spending time together creates an atmosphere of understanding and trust, so team retreats and gatherings are organised regularly.
  • More people are working remotely and do not meet their co-workers in person, so online activities are designed for colleagues to chat, share a laugh, and discuss things beyond work.

For all the effort that goes into such interventions, they do little to actually build culture because they work only at the surface level. In reality, these are the ways in which employees experience organisation culture:

  • How do decisions get made, especially those that impact communities and the workforce? For example, decisions on discontinuing programmes or requiring staff to come to the office. Who is involved?
  • What type of work does the organisation take up? What does it refuse to do?
  • Who gets hired and recognised?
  • To what extent do team members display qualities such as empathy and trust? How committed are they to achieving their goals?

Not addressing the real questions means ending up with an organisation that might do excellent work but is founder-driven, has a revolving door of people, and is unable to adapt or grow beyond a point. Sadly, this is the case with many organisations, including more than a few in the development sector.

Myths about organisation culture

Two myths lie at the root of the disconnect between organisations and their people. To better understand this, let’s take up a more comprehensive definition of culture: “The commonly held set of values and principles that shows up in the everyday behaviour of its people.”

Myth #1: Culture is about the organisation

Reality: It’s about the individuals that constitute the organisation

An organisation exists to be able to achieve more than any one of its people could by themselves—the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The relationship between the individual and the organisation can be viewed in two ways. One is that the organisation (read: leadership) has set out to achieve a mission and that people have come on board to participate in the journey. The other is that the organisation is a vehicle to realise the collective aspirations and potential of its people.

The reality of the world today is that more and more people are looking for the latter. It is why so many corporates are now scrambling to discover and articulate a higher purpose for their work, beyond quarterly profits, valuations, and market capitalisation; they need to engage their best people or risk losing them.

In this regard, one would assume that the development sector has a tremendous advantage over others because the entire sector is an expression of the high ideal of service. However, the question that is asked by individuals across social purpose organisations is—am I fulfilling my own ideal of service, or someone else’s?

The shifting relationship between the organisation and the individual puts the onus on leadership teams to treat culture as something that the people in the organisation will build together. The alternative approach, of telling employees what their purpose should be, simply doesn’t work any more.

Myth #2: Culture is about the behaviour of people

Reality: It’s about the values shared by people

The everyday behaviours of an organisation’s people are visible to all—colleagues, communities, partners, clients, and funders. Leadership teams are usually also clear about what they would like the behaviours to be—more proactivity, greater sense of ownership, higher quality of deliverables, collaboration instead of competition, and so on.

Behaviours must be looked at because they are the everyday manifestation of culture. However, the issue is that too often leadership and HR teams focus exclusively on modifying or ‘fixing’ behaviours through training modules, rewards and bonuses, performance ratings, among others, all the while ignoring underlying values and principles. These are some instances that might, unfortunately, sound familiar because they are so common:

  • Innovation and dynamism are encouraged by hiring talented people, reducing formality, and regularly going on team retreats. The clue to the success of this approach can be found when a new idea is brought up at the retreat. If everyone still turns to see the boss’s expression before speaking then one can be sure that the team lacks the psychological safety needed for fresh thinking to emerge.
  • Teams struggle to balance camaraderie and deliverables, drifting towards one or the other because it is unclear which one should be prioritised, and when.

People can see through what is meant to ‘fix’ their behaviour and what is meant to let them express their higher selves. The more connected an individual feels with the organisation’s values and principles, the more they will act in ways that embody them. Establishing a connection is not about telling people what to do but about engaging with them to find common ground. Otherwise, it’s the equivalent of asking your team to step on to the dance floor without turning on the music.

The organisations that thrive in this period will do so on the strength of the creativity, dedication, and compassion of their people.

How to approach organisation culture

Leaders should keep in mind that the definition of culture has two parts. It is important to approach them in sequence rather than jumping to the second.

Leaders should keep in mind that the definition of culture has two parts. It is important to approach them in sequence rather than jumping to the second.

1. “The commonly held set of values and principles…”

Define this set as a team. Each individual will find a different meaning in words such as ‘trust’ and ‘excellence’, so building and evolving a common understanding is essential, especially as the external environment changes or new people join the team. Choose to have conversations rather than issue instructions.

2. “…that shows up in the everyday behaviour of its people”

Make a genuine effort to embody the values and principles, and design practices and policies that are consistent with them. This applies not only to the big things (what projects to take up, whom to hire, etc.) but also to the small ones (not messaging at night or during the weekend, letting a brainstorming conversation run instead of stepping in, etc.).

The coming years are likely to be a time of frequent yet unpredictable change. The organisations that thrive in this period will do so on the strength of the creativity, dedication, and compassion of their people. Leaders who commit to a culture in which these qualities come to the fore will not only have navigated the challenges of the future but also built something of lasting value.

“This article was originally published on India Development Review and can be viewed here.”

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