It all Starts with Workplace Culture!

Workplace Culture is the way we do things around here – and it creates a feeling that impacts on business performance, compliance, reputation and staff engagement.

I remember around the turn of the century I was doing a briefing (as a consultant) for a small team of executives from a professional firm. We were debating what actually is workplace bullying. Most of the senior team were getting passionately involved in the discussion. A female executive who was not so passionately involved and obviously quite annoyed about the time it was taking to discuss such a ‘ineffectual’ matter stood up and blurted ‘Actually all I want to know is how far I can go before we call it bullying’. Not an unreasonable question but perhaps it was the lack of thought and sarcastic tone in the delivery that drove me to react (and quite unprofessionally I may add) ‘Well how far do you want to go?’ I replied. Not surprisingly she responded: ‘Well that’s what we are paying you to tell us Stephen Bell-HR Expert!’ Suddenly I was caught in the battle. There were some smirks, giggles and ‘oh yeahs’ from one or two of the ten executives that were sitting around the table. All of a sudden I was being hit head on by ‘the way we do things around here.’

This was, in fact, an opportunity for the Regional Director to stand up and point to the organisational values. This was an opportunity for the HR executive to make a speech about making this an engaging workplace for people and the lines should be drawn by the value of our values. And then I, Stephen Bell (HR Expert!) could recite the definitions outlined in local OH&S guidelines. None of this happened. I did lamely recite the values probably with a quarter the conviction the Regional Director could have and encouraged them to turn to page 20 in their manuals where they could find the local definition of workplace bullying.

The Regional Director and HR Director remained relatively silent; the discussion lasted another 20 minutes before we all cordially shook hands and splintered off in our different directions to lead our very different lives. I left with a certain feeling about this organisation -‘Arrogant, undefined about behaviour and culture, aggressive and rudderless, lacking leadership.’ Perhaps unfair judgements, but real and powerful feelings for me. And if ‘that moment’ was indicative of the leadership behaviours, ‘arrogant, undefined about behaviour and culture, aggressive and lacking leadership’ become justifiable descriptions of the workplace culture. And in ‘that moment’ it was actually what was not said by the Regional Director and HR Director that was more powerful than what was actually spoken by the lady executive.

I also left that session with a resolve never to walk into a training session about workplace bullying and culture without ‘my actors’. Yes those actor friends of mine ensure people can see what we mean by ‘over the line’ rather than just discussing it. It was also then that I decided that iHR Australia and iHR Asia would start focusing on assisting organisations to properly define their workplace cultures so that leaders could properly articulate what was meant by a desirable, compliant and productive workplace culture that attracts the kind of people we want. More importantly my actors would give them the opportunity to see how they act every day has a direct impact on culture and subsequently on performance, compliance, reputation and staff engagement.

Defining workplace culture or the way we do things around here is an interesting process. It is about creating statements that align to organisational values but are more active. The workplace culture statement is an indicator of the pattern of behaviours we want to see. For example a workplace culture statement arising from the often articulated workplace value ‘Respect’ may be ‘We listen to and analyse the professional views of others’, ‘We listen to ideas and views from those around us or ‘We do not personally attack individuals when giving them professional feedback’. When developing ‘culture statements’ you may not cover every behaviour for every probable situation, but you leave leaders and employees within the organisation in no doubt what the ‘indicative behaviours’ of the organisations workplace culture are.

In general, organisations that are taking the time to clearly articulate what the workplace culture should look like are actually becoming strategic about workplace culture. That means recognising that workplace culture can be a driving factor in achieving organisational goals. They realise that culture can drive a range of important elements of the organisation. In order to explain the ‘business’ impacts of a good, bad or indifferent workplace culture I have identified three key workplace culture areas of impact. Simply I am saying that workplace culture impacts on:

Organisation, team and individual performance;

Brand perception for current and future employees, customers, stakeholders and business partners;

Compliance, in particular the organisations ability to comply with policies and regulations.

In my forthcoming articles I will explain exactly why I believe workplace culture should be part of the strategic agenda for organisations aiming for sustainable success.

In 2009 as we start to emerge from the economic recession brought upon predominantly by an industry, and subsequently, workplace cultures where the unacceptable often became acceptable it is interesting to ask ourselves where business cultures will find themselves in 2010.

Looking forward the danger is that leaders will feel compelled to immerse their organisations in practices that reduce risk and drive a conservative rigour that, will in turn, stifle workplace cultures once labelled innovative, responsive and entrepreneurial.

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