Now more than ever before, it is critical that we actually do what we say we do. Organisation’s can no longer hide behind the pretense of a good story, of great organisational culture, with just a well-worded core values poster placed strategically on their reception wall.
It is 2021 and we are (still) living through a pandemic. COVID has catalyzed immense change. Our world has instantaneously gone digital – this means many of us are working remotely, or in hybrid and varied work set ups. Global changes have forced thousands of people into new ways of working. For many, jobs have been lost, or are currently at stake. Career longevity and relevance are top of mind. Some find themselves in new roles, new industries, and new business circumstances.
In the context of current systemic threats – we tend to default to a state of instinctive self-protection and a fight for survival. For leaders, this can show up as severe overwhelm and default to fight, flight, freeze and appease responses. If this continues over a longer term, it can lead to burnout or what Adam Grant refers to as ‘languishing’ – that liminal space somewhere between depression and thriving.
Compounded, drawn out stress impacts many and shows up in different ways for each of us. For some a sense of hopelessness, lack of direction and an absence of thriving.
One can understand that the focus for many organisations, in the initial stage of this crisis, was survival. When our very survival is at stake, and we are functioning in primal reactivity, it can be tough to pay attention to higher order needs such as connection, contribution and significance. Now that we are over a year into this pandemic, the lack of attention to these higher order needs is taking its toll.
This year we are seeing more organisations revisit their culture as a strategic focus, as they acknowledge that their employees’ experience directly impacts their level of engagement, contribution and ultimately, results. Those that are paying attention to their organisational culture as a strategic imperative are setting themselves apart. These organisations are attracting talented people who want to be a part of, want to contribute to and choose to stay with the organisation.
Culture is how we experience life within the organisation. Those cumulative moments that bring your unique shared values, goals, attitudes and practices to life through actions and behaviours. It is the way people feel about the work they do, the values they believe in, where they see the company going and what they’re doing to get it there.
Organisations who are not intentionally investing in their culture, risk becoming utterly irrelevant.
To avoid irrelevance here are four critical culture levers to focus on, in times of change:
Often when we think about a great culture, we think of an exciting context or physical space. Perhaps it includes table tennis, large colourful canteens with buffets, pause rooms and barista coffee stations. In a typical office environment, the spaces for working, creative thinking and problem solving, down time and play are often independent spaces.
In this new world of work, each person’s individual context is likely to differ dramatically. For some, space may be limited with minimal natural light, possible internet connectivity issues as well as a myriad potential distractions and disturbances. We have never had to care about, manage and consider other people’s contexts to the degree that we do now. To ignore people’s contexts is shortsighted.
Think of how you can support your people to consider their work context and make choices that serve them and the organisation. Ask them what they need in place to support focus, productivity, collaboration and connection. This may be different for each person. Their needs may be about physical resources and infrastructure. Physical space plays a significant role in impacting your employee experience and in turn, your culture. They may also need additional processes or systems put in place to enable them to best perform their role. A one size fits all approach is not going to work.
We are seeing an increase in posts, articles and polls discussing the changing landscape of work, with significantly more people wanting to work remotely or have the option for a hybrid set up. Many want to still have access to office spaces for in-person meetings and collaboration. The emerging theme is clear – people want choice. They also want to be part of the decision making process to find the most suitable solution. Like most decisions, buy-in increases when people know they have choice and their voice is heard. Margaret Wheatley said it well when she said “People support what they create and resist what they are excluded from”.
Wherever possible, give people choice and their sense of being valued and in turn adding value, increases.
3. Fractal Purpose
This is purpose that shows up at every level within your organisation. Like succulents the fractal pattern you see, repeats itself throughout the organism. Organisations are complex and constantly evolving ecosystems.
At both a team level and individual level, we need to help our people connect the broader purpose of the organisation with their individual purpose. Many are questioning purpose and meaning in their lives at this tumultuous time. Engaging in conversations that support your people’s discovery of the organisation’s purpose and how it interfaces with their own purpose, supports them to invest and align their actions to serving both.
Most leaders know by now that a sole focus on profit is short sighted. Unchecked growth has created the conditions for a climate and mental health crisis that is unfolding in real time. This singular focus has led to a level of employee engagement and burnout that is incredibly unhealthy. Aaron Dignon says, in his book Brave New Work, “A mission statement that places shareholder value as the definition rather than the result of its success is uninspiring”.
And saying the purpose of a company is to make money is like saying that your purpose in life is to breathe. We understand that leaders need to ensure business survival, but without any lens on something beyond the numbers, we risk diminishing our employee value proposition and the organisation’s long term survival.
Without a clear purpose, in times of change, your people will be left floundering, overwhelmed, and confused. A great purpose is aspirational, but it also creates a boundary, a constraint. It focuses our energy and attention, and it places a boundary around our efforts by saying ‘here is where we will build our vision’.
It is critical that you ensure that your organisation’s reason for being is not only known, but lived through leadership, each team’s goals, milestones and daily actions.
Controlling everything is not only unsustainable, it leads to organisational exhaustion. Culture is everyone’s experience and is therefore influenced by everyone’s shared values, goals, attitudes, behaviours and actions.
Activating a thriving culture in the new world of work, requires active participation. It cannot be solely an HR driven initiative. It has to be decentralised. This decentralisation is important to ensure ownership, contribution and active citizenship. This spreads the load and keeps the momentum alive.
To cultivate decentralisation, consider how you create opportunities for people at all levels to rise, to champion culture and embody the values within their team, department or role.
Now is a great time to stop, pause and take stock of how your organisation is doing on these four culture levers. Which of these levers need more attention? What can you do today to encourage a thriving healthy culture in your organisation during these times of change? How you cultivate culture through this time can place you and your organisation in a position to not just tell a good story of culture, but to live it through action and purpose driven impact?
A founder, people and culture strategist as well as leadership enthusiast, Dvorah is a professional certified coach (PCC) who is inspired by seeing possibilities become reality. She finds meaning in supporting clients to engage whole-heartedly, transform obstacles and awaken hidden power within themselves their teams and their organisations. For more information, visit www.thecoachingcentre.co.za. An ICF credential holder and certified Five Lens Enneagram Practitioner, her background is in Industrial Psychology, with 18+ years’ experience in the field of people development, culture, human resources, and learning and development.