I am often asked to share my perspective on why well-intentioned organizations struggle to establish strong, effective and sustainable cultures where employees are happy, inspired and productive, and where the organization benefits from the meaningful achievement of its strategic goals and imperatives. My response to this dilemma is simple on the surface, but solutions must be approached knowing there are levels of situational complexity to address. After all, organizations are governed by people who are less than perfect and human drift from the expected standard is usually more than we predict or anticipate. Organizations have weaknesses, and it’s common for systems and policies to breakdown contributing to cultural frustration. But the good news is most of the complexity can be predicted and managed through strong control environments and operationally functional control systems. I decided to write a short article outlining the problems most organizations face and discuss why some organizations are successful in moving the culture mountain and why some organizations are not.
Every week, I thoughtfully linger on stories I hear about talented people leaving or wanting to leave their company because they are fed up with negative cultures, senior management elitism, ethical dilemmas, and toxic employees who make their business and personal lives miserable. I feel the human frustration when people describe how management, with fake enthusiasm, puts up a façade of action by restructuring company values with the latest buzzwords and token verbs designed to somehow inspire a higher level of responsiveness from staff who execute. I listen as high-level managers pontificate what a “pain” it is to be responsive to board member concerns about disgruntled employee attitudes and high attrition rates. I am always amazed at “C” level and board level individuals who prefer to practice conflict avoidance by ignoring passive-aggressive management behavior responsible for the exodus of talented people, and at the same time brag about how these managers deliver polished presentations during board meetings. I am pained by the drama of team members forced into competitive postures in order to validate their purpose in the organization. I am dismayed with negative water cooler stories and backbiting of colleagues and management that thrive in these negative environments. I often hear people speak about the need for moving cultural mountains, unfortunately, it usually comes with a caveat of acceptance that the culture change will never occur.
During my career as an executive and a regulator, I witnessed firsthand the negative results of cultural dysfunction. I have examined many organizations that failed to achieve strategic goals such as regulatory readiness. And even more tragic, I was responsible for investigating organizations blindsided by predictable operational risks that triggered major events, disrupted their organization, and severely impacted their neighbors on the grid – all because they failed to escape the clutches of cultural dysfunction. In these cases, senior managers and employees were often at a loss in understanding why their organization 1) failed; and 2) consistently operated at the lower end of the cultural maturity scale while possessing well educated, highly seasoned and well-paid individuals. On the flip side, I have witnessed many functional organizations whose staff were very receptive and responsive to the tone, posture and communicated strategy of management. These organizations consistently deliver and execute at the upper level of the cultural maturity scale.
Many will debate how to define culture and what key attributes need to be shaped to achieve a highly effective environment. In my experience, action and real fundamental change often fall idle as these debates take place. I have refined my view on organizational culture down to three key functional domains: The Governance domain, the Leadership/Management domain and the Execution domain. Each of these domains embrace different roles, responsibilities and behaviors in order to get things accomplished. I believe it is important to approach and break down cultural problems across these domains to better analyze the strengths and opportunities for improvement. This allows for a more successful solution strategy.
In my experience, organizations that struggle with improving culture usually lack the maturity to effectively design a strategic governance posture that sets the necessary tone and inspires receptiveness and enthusiastic responsiveness of the people. Fundamentally speaking, the Governance and Leadership domains struggle to connect the dots between vision articulation, purposeful strategy, and people’s willingness to pursue goal execution. This results in the Execution domain scrambling to interpret the needs of management and bringing the “wrong rock”. I often find a deep business communication separation between the Leadership/Management and Execution domains, in of itself, a recipe for team dysfunction. Artifacts of this separation include a lack of decision making and conflict avoidance, as well as the tendency to provide a safe harbor to managers with behavior problems. I once had an executive tell me, “If the leadership/management domain would put the same effort towards communicating strategy and organizational needs to staff as they do in preparing for board meetings – there would be a closer cultural harmony.” Organizations who perform at the lower end of the maturity scale often lack integrated control systems designed to actively monitor key cultural metrics around important cultural attributes.
In my experience, successful organizations target a principles-based approach to define and harmonize the key cultural domains. Mature cultures thoughtfully design the Governance and Leadership/Management domains to include ethical decision-makers, active listeners, strong communicators, mentors and those that practice empathic feedback and conflict management at all levels. They actively weed out passive-aggressive managers (no matter how talented or polished they may appear) whose behavior shuts down productivity and destroys the integrity and responsiveness of teams. They equally focus on the design of the environment responsible for execution by ensuring transparency and participation at all levels of strategy development and deployment. This includes structured policies that define roles and responsibilities and communication mechanisms that allow unfiltered ideas, risks, issues, and problems to be brought to the table for thoughtful dialog. They foster team environments and avoid levels of elitism that create an “us versus them” environment. Successful organizations implement risk control systems and actively monitor key metrics around important cultural attributes. These strategies go a long way when connecting the dots between vision articulation, purposeful strategy, and people’s willingness to pursue goal execution.
In conclusion, it takes organizational courage to move beyond the debates and break away from the lower levels of cultural maturity. It takes Governance domain courage to instill a functional executive team that sets a proactive tone for holistic success by embracing high ethical expectations for managers. It takes Leadership/Management domain courage to examine, breakdown and redesign the culture of a struggling organization. Doing so requires instilling business trust across the organization in a way that sparks an innovated and functional team environment. It also takes courage for the people tasked with organizational execution to step up to the plate of ownership and accountability, and actively support the vision, strategy and principles that define the organizational governance stance. Real change begins with finding common ground and harmony among the domains, and it ends with execution of legitimate change.
Earl W. Shockley is the developer of “Intelligent Empowerment” (InPOWERd ©) principles and a Cultural Maturity Scale (CMS) system/framework that aligns people, processes and management practices to maximize organizational potential and better achieve strategic objectives. He is also the developer of a business “Ethical Decision Making Model” used by professors at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
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