We all want to build a strong, stable organizational culture. However, we often overlook the enormous challenge of doing this. I’ve spent years hearing and diagnosing organizational problems, and if I’ve learned one lesson it is this: It’s always a shock to face what really went wrong. In a way, we dance around the issues. We build compensation mechanisms to manage the impact. We make excuses. In the end, we often treat the whole situation like a spoiled child that we’d rather not upset.
However, in order to build a stronger organization, you need to honestly examine and influence the important elements that may have contributed to its current state.
Organizational core stability: A confluence of elements including, but not limited to: 1) clarity regarding the development / communication of mission, goals, strategy and expressed values, 2) clear governance, 3) alignment of resource priorities, 4) common performance metrics .
It’s difficult to face the music. There can be discussions of guilt, frustration from failed improvement efforts, and obstacles. However, examining discord, note by note, is the only way to move forward. I’ve found that my role is as much about cushioning the blow as it is diagnostic.
When your organization has started this process, take heart and think about the following:
1. Nobody sets out to build a sick culture. I will free everyone from their guilt, in the name of progress. Terrible cultures seem to take on a life of their own. Time, growth, and the wrong metrics – get companies wrong – much like a bully about to steal your money for lunch. The resulting condition can serve as a devastating blow, but nobody wanted it to happen.
2. Letting go of guilt can be a liberating moment. When you let go of the guilt, the silos, and the functional turf, you can set yourself up to change things. Stabilizing the organization is the first step on the road to rehabilitation. Internal organizational stability requires that you investigate issues such as governance, decision making, resources, and how you interact with your people. The rebuilding of your culture starts at the core and moves outward. (In addition, “dark sides” such as narratives that override healthy habits need to be exposed and addressed quickly.)
3. Start small and act differently. The proof lies in the pudding, as they say – and the best way to improve a sick culture is for it to act differently. If you’re leading a team or a department make no mistake, it’s a living, breathing microculture. Know that there is little hope of rehabilitation if observed behaviors do not change in accordance with a declared cultural change. The culture will continue to decline and the organization will lose both people and opportunities.
Change is often about forgiveness.
About reorienting towards the future and leaving behind painful narratives.
In a sense, this needs to be extended to the larger organization as well.
Let it go on.
Have you ever tried to change an unhealthy culture? Was it successful? What were the greatest challenges?
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an industrial / organizational psychologist and founding member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her training series The Core – helps people and organizations build a stronger foundation for working life. Her thoughts on working life have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz, and The Huffington Post.
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