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Healthy Culture: Healthy Company

Healthy Culture: Healthy Company

Ted Knight – from Caddyshack

Let’s talk about culture.  Not the kind of culture reflected in sipping from Waterford crystal champagne flutes, your pinky whimsically dangling over the edge of the glass while you decide whether to summer in Newport or Cannes this year.  No, the culture that defines the atmosphere of your organization: whether your employees would describe your organization as open, inclusive and growth-oriented; or simply tantamount to working in North Korea.  While various definitions and developmental strategies around culture exist, Dennis Rodman aside, we can generally agree that working for the “Rocketman” would likely not be a nurturing, nor career-advancing, environment.  But how do we define these differences and how do we create the right kind of culture?  In short, how do we move from “atmosphere” to something more concrete we can rightly identify and develop?

True: culture gets a lot of airtime.  There’s certainly a lot of discussion about culture.  Even a simple Google search can keep you busy for weeks with a sea of materials and opinions.  But the trouble is that, while culture is a regular topic of conversation, effectively evaluating your culture and taking steps to change it are difficult; and, further, because definitions of, and modes of working with, a company’s culture are less concrete and lack the same rigor as other developmental areas of focus, it can be difficult to know how best to tackle company culture.  While it’s true to say a healthy culture is symptomatic of a healthy company, how do we gauge whether our culture is, in fact, healthy?

In the 1980s, a team from the University of Michigan created the Organizational Cultural Assessment Instrument, or OCAI, as a validated tool for evaluating overall culture and offering insight “on the preferred culture” of the organization, which they argued could be “adapted into a road map for change that [would] mobilize [the]…organization to sustainable change”.   Clearly a step in the right direction, as it offers to both define culture and then develop around these insights.

Their model is predicated on a definition of culture that rings generally true for me: “Organizational culture consists of the values people share, their collective assumptions, and their behavior”.  Under this definition, understanding culture would seem to be a process of extrapolation: gathering a sense of the collective personalities and behavioral styles of an organization’s employee population, and the extent to which that population shares the mission, vision and values the organization espouses?

And yet, the OCAI works a little differently.  The OCAI is itself built around a conceptual model these self-same University of Michigan academics called the “competing values framework”.  You may well have heard of this model, as it has become very influential in framing conversations around the factors that determine if an organization will be successful or not.  In brief, the model is built on two divergent axes: along one axis runs an organization’s primary motivation, from internally—or employee—focused on one end, to externally—or market—focused at the other; and, along the second axis, a range from flexible, or versatile, at one end, to highly structured, or control-oriented, at the other end.  This layout creates four quadrants, then, which incorporate the elements from each axis to essentially define four basic cultural orientations an organization can have.

Taking my cue right from the OCAI literature, your organization can be a:

  • Clan Culture – characterized by congeniality and a focus on the employee experience
  • Adhocracy Culture – characterized by creativity, dynamism and an entrepreneurial focus
  • Market Culture – characterized by a results-oriented focus: getting the job done!
  • Hierarchy Culture – characterized by a focus on efficiency, a formal and structured environment

By extension, the leaders of these respective cultures are the exponents of these approaches: leaders of an adhocracy, for example, tend themselves to be entrepreneurial in nature, innovative and focused on creative solutions.

This offers a valuable way of beginning to frame your thinking about the cultural identity of your organization.  By extension, it provides an avenue to explore the personality make-up of the organization—especially leadership—and the extent to which they reaffirm or deny the broader cultural identify of the company.  What would it mean for certain leaders in the organization to be visionary, innovative or highly creative in both focus and need, if the organization more broadly is focused on precision and control?

Further still, a recognized cultural orientation invites comparison to the current company business strategy: to what extent do key organizational objectives either align to or run at odds to the cultural make-up of the organization—and what would that mean for both execution of these objectives and how such contrary objectives might re-shape (or antagonize) company culture?

Likely your business strategy shifts in response to need: at times focused on market expansion; at other times contracting to support and retain employee talent, or focused on improving company products or services through improved quality or process orientation.  This carries you through cycles of alignment and mis-alignment with the broader cultural orientation of the organization.  Some phases will seem easier to accomplish than others, based on that arc.  Simply being aware of this process has real benefit, as it suggests there may be times when employees, or key leaders, feel out of rhythm with the current phase and company messaging and regular communication from leadership can help to mitigate disruption.

Our partners at the Predictive Index Corporation talk a great deal about sources of disengagement, noting challenges with culture as one of four key drivers of dissatisfaction.  Disengagement with the organization, which typically refers to a sense of misalignment with the culture of the company—a feeling that I “just don’t fit in here”—can contribute to poor performance and increased turnover.  So understanding the cultural component is critical in the battle to hold onto and develop your talent.

The Predictive Index tools, including their well-known set of behavioral and cognitive assessment instruments, can harness “people insights” to throw light on how individual personalities conflate to create a team personality; and, by extension, how that team personality then relates to the broader culture of the organization.

The model that PI has used to connect their personality data to a cultural orientation turns out to be the “competing values framework”, making the PI an outstanding tool to connect the individual employee—and his or her alignment with a role in the company—to the broader cultural orientation of the company itself.  While not a validated relationship, like the behavioral or cognitive instruments themselves, there is still real value in exploring this arc: from individual, to collective, to culture.

Their approach takes some of the guess work out of understanding how company culture is generated from the various personalities of the organization, and, in turn, how that culture is likely to either embrace or bristle at current strategic objectives.  If an individual’s personality can be expressed as “risk taking”, “driven”, “novelty-seeking” and “disinterested in details or rigorous process”, in an organization characterized by values that are “risk adverse”, “conservative” and interested in “consistency and stability”, they may find themselves feeling at odds within this cultural milieu.  While not a sole determiner in performance, a misalignment to the culture or the objectives can certainly create room for disengagement—especially if the employee in question is a member of senior leadership, feeling out of sync with the direction the organization is moving.

The ability to catch these types of misalignments and then to constructively connect them to the personality—or “operating style”—of the individual is really powerful and provides a way to both engage with culture at the level of an individual employee and to see the relationship between the cultural tenor of the company and those tasked with embodying that culture.

Culture both creates and is a reflection of the ecosystem of the organization.  Or to say this another way: culture is part of a feedback loop, attracting talent and reflecting that talent; informing business strategy and, in turn, being informed by it.  Whether you rely on tools like the OCAI or the PI, or simply utilize employee engagement surveys, you need to be able to define your current culture and then consider the ramifications for your employee base and your strategic objectives.  Given the sort of porous nature of culture, a lack of insight into your culture can carry heavy consequences, as culture can be negatively impacted by poor hiring, an incompatible strategic plan or a perceived disconnect between the words and actions of senior leadership.  Conversely, a healthy culture improves retention and can be a boon to hiring, and reflects a strategic direction built on the commitment of the personnel tasked with executing those objectives.

Take time to understand your culture and be prepared to address problems that arise from that analysis.  A healthy culture is reflective of a healthy company.  Don’t ignore the symptoms; the underlining disease has the potential of killing your company.  Cultivate your culture and that culture will help to grow and sustain your company.

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