The most invisible but impactful element of the organisation is culture–and arguably one that helps sustainability as well as consistent and superior performance. It’s not just difficult to define but also to explain in a meaningful way, and at the end of the day, is an aggregation of many things. Culture is underlying and what is visible or observable are symptoms, and maybe some behaviours, or how things happen in the organisation. It is then the job of leadership to make meaning out of these visible symptoms/signs and take action to reinforce or correct certain things. However, changing culture is often difficult and unsuccessfully attempted. The difficulty often lies in changing things (processes, leadership, ways of working, people bahaviours and rewarding mechanisms). This is particularly so if the organisation has been successful in the past. Here are a few primary causes (and there can be many more), which seem to be relevant in this context. These are more from a leadership and people perspective and do not illustrate the challenges from a financial, process or system perspective.
It’s easier to talk about problems than do something about them. Most people can fairly accurately talk about symptoms, and some even get to the root cause of issues. Collectively or individually, it’s most likely that the people in the organisation often are well aware of the problem, or at least part of the problem. It is however quite amazing that nothing happens as a consequence. This could be due to many reasons–the voice is not heard, symptoms ignored and /or the analysis of the root cause is faulty. However, it appears that most of the time organisations and leaders do not know “how” to deal with the problem. So they know the “what” but not the path to get there. It’s also feasible that the “how” is linked to difficult choices and a different way of doing things, so it does not automatically happen. And many leaders may believe that by talking about the problem enough, it will somehow go away. Unless there is differentiated action to address real issues, this is unlikely to happen.
Most People/Leaders see themselves as being outside the problem. It’s often quite enlightening to see people talk about challenges in their organisation. It is as if they are analysts or consultants. They refuse to believe that their own actions, behaviours and contribution is also part of the success and culture of the organisation. It is as if they are not part of the organisational dance but standing aside watching other people dance. It’s good to step back once in a while and take a detached view. It is also imperative to accept that each employee (and particularly senior leaders) leave a mark by how they behave and do things on the fabric of the organisation. This defines culture more often than not, and unless there is personal responsibility to see and do thing differently, the collective change at an organisational level will not happen.
The wrong behaviour is being rewarded and not reprimanded/corrected. This is perhaps the most contentious area. Leaders often give confusing signals to people down the line. There are either not enough motivators for change, and not enough communication around the consequences of changing or not changing are. The rewards (or reprimands) often have nothing to do with behaviours the organisation is trying to drive. There are overt and covert reward mechanisms in organisations–e.g,who gets more face time with the leader in a particular group. While leaders may deal with overt and apparent reward mechanisms (pay, promotions, appraisal ratings etc), they are often negligent of the more subtle recognition mechanisms and what message it is passing to the organisation at large. It is quite difficult to get even the stated reward mechanisms right while implementing–bringing objectivity and fairness. On top of that if there are too many covert signals as to what is ‘really’ valued –or not–it confuses the organisation and creates mistrust and lack of behavioural direction.
The subtle signals are ignored. Organisations and culture don’t change by themselves, at least in a planned way. There are of course examples of crises which force change. While implementing change however, signs of support or resistance can be often ignored, By not acknowledging support, this is likely to go away and enthusiasm fade. By not dealing with conflict and resistance in a timely and direct manner, it can grow, and even become a roadblock. The ability to pick the signs, and more importantly act on them is critical. Change managers and leaders are so taken up by their own vision and what they want to drive that other perspectives can be missed sometimes. Also, differentiating between the more apparent (vocal) signs vis the ones which are less apparent may be important to direct action. The trick therefore is to not just pick the right signals and all of them, but also interpret meaningfully, assess the impact and act.