Good Culture

How Does One Move Up the Culture Ladder?

So often today we talk about climbing the “Corporate” ladder but in reality, what has been done is to effectively move up the “Culture” ladder. I genuinely believe the latter is much more significant.

What is a good Culture:

One where leaders are not generally afraid to do difficult things? Everyone knows where leaders stand on managing risks – either taking the risks or running from them. Secondly, respect. Individuals are respected as are the dangers they face.

Experts are listened to, even when they are low in the hierarchy. This leads to being informed. Managers know what is really going on and the workforce is willing to report their own errors and near misses – which is hard for them to say and for managers to hear. These create a culture that is mindful. Everyone is wary and always ready for the unexpected.

A respectful culture is one that is just and fair, a culture with clear lines between what is acceptable and unacceptable, ones that everyone agrees upon. What makes it just, is that there are well understood consequences, both positive and negative. What makes it fair is everyone from top to bottom agrees where the lines are drawn and the consequences of crossing them. Finally, the organization is learning. Willing to adapt and implement necessary reforms even when they feel expensive and even when holy cows must be overthrown based upon what they have learned. 

Organizations with these characteristics have many clear advantages. The advantages are that such organizations are flexible.  They operate according to need rather than tradition.  Reliable – they always deliver on time, on quality, on demand because they manage the risks better than anyone else. This makes them profitable. All their stakeholders’ benefit. Finally, people like working in that sort of organization. The problem is this is a daunting list for leaders. How can they do this?

The problem is that most organizations are nowhere near this level and if they were, they would not need help and advice. Most organizations that want to achieve this list need a roadmap.

What can the culture ladder offer?

This is what the culture ladder offers – providing a structure to help decide:

  • Where you are now.
  • Where you want to go to; and
  • Support the process of getting there.

Many cultures are pathological. Disruption seems a problem caused by workers. The main driver is the business, profits, and a desire not to get caught by anyone.

Then we have three other levels of increasing cultural growth, starting with the Reactive.

Reactive organizations start to take issues seriously but only after incidents is there any attempt at action. Whenever they see a problem, they want to fix it quickly and quietly. Resolution is driven by management systems with much collection of data but little follow-up to completion.

Then there is the proactive. With improved performance the unexpected is more of a challenge. Workforce involvement starts to move the initiative away from a purely top-down approach.  

Finally, the generative. There is active participation at all levels. Resolution is an integral part of the business culture and organizations are characterised by repetitive questioning – “We’re doing so well. What are we missing?”

How can you get there?

The first lesson people need to learn is that motivational speakers do not really help. The feel-good factor they create usually has a short half-life and dissipates by the next morning. Furthermore, they create unrealistic expectations, possibly making things worse rather than better. The good news, however, is that that the motivation is already there.

People, however, can recognize where they are on the ladder and always desire to be higher.  In all organizations, there is a built-in desire to be better. The problem is day-to-day reality. They have good values and impeccable attitudes when surveyed but their behaviours are what let them down. One of the common simple definition of culture is “how we do things round here”. This is where aspiration meets reality – where the rubber meets the road.

In talking to many organizations, not only did they think they were higher up the ladder than reality but when challenged they would say, “But we have this in place and that in place,” and they thought having things like reporting systems or communication strategies in place, was going to be enough.

It is essential to ensure that whenever effective habits that generate great performance, inclusion, diversity, as well as environmental and quality outcomes occur, they become permanent. Only then can we speak of “How we do things around here” in ways that mean that the organization has become a true culture of growth. This is when the best habits are ingrained so true value, means far more than just an answer in a survey. At the generative level, collaboration overrides the temptations for both workers and managers to do it improperly, “just this once”.

This means that the major driver must come from management, right from the top. Management must concentrate on ensuring that everyone – and this includes top management themselves – gets into the habit of doing things the way they say they should. They must have the discipline to keep on using processes and systems until they become the norm. That is another word for culture. Self-discipline must be applied by senior managers to ensure that everyone else becomes disciplined as well. This is hard. The temptations to backslide, “just this once” are many but disastrous for progress in the right direction.

Success requires implementation, doing what you decided to do. Many organizations, however, see strategic planning as having a higher status than mere implementation. Events overtake plans and we discover that the senior management commitment was not as strong as it was during the opening speeches of the culture initiative. Cultural change takes time. Senior managers are impatient and may be moved on before the fruits ripen. It probably takes two years at a minimum to change from old, bad cultural habits to new and better ones.

Warning, authoritarian leadership styles who cannot give away hard-earned power can destroy proactive or generative cultures by:

  • Corporate loss of nerve shown by withdrawal of permission to try new things. 
  • Imposition of top-down control because of a lack of trust.
  • A fear that the workforce will run away and be irresponsible.
  • Managerial failure to learn to accept bad news – an essential part of their diet.

The benefits are clear because the kind of organizations that make it to the proactive and generative level run better. The people who work in them enjoy it more, staff turnover is less. Another advantage of the advanced culture is a consequence of increased trust, “You do your job and I’ll do mine,” that results in reduced supervisory costs and increased flexibility in operation.

In conclusion:

It is possible to climb the ladder, but it is hard and probably harder than people expect when they start. The good news is that I have never found anyone who wanted to go down the ladder but lots of people at all levels who wanted to go up.

Finally, if you do make it up there, everyone benefits – commercially, environmentally, socially and you all get to go home in one piece – every time.