A matter of culture – and circumstance


‘But our people do not want to make decisions. Our people do not want to take responsibility’

Recently we heard these statements from a CEO in a round-table discussion, again. This is not the first time we’ve heard this sentiment, as a matter of fact we’ve heard this so often that we thought it may be appropriate to talk about it in general.

The background is that these leaders responded to change proposals with that sentiment in order to reply, sure what you propose is all fine & dandy, but we have the wrong people (- to strife for real sustainable high performance)

What is wrong with this picture? Does a large number of organizations really have the ‘wrong people’ to strife for high performance or is something else at play? Well, we know, it even sounds like a loaded question.

Let’s have a look at this.

Organizations are systems (Old hat.) But that means they behave like systems and succumb to laws of system dynamics. What determines behavior in systems? Correct, structure.
What is the outward representation of structure in social systems? Correct again, culture.

And there we have it.

The sentiments expressed above are no doubt genuine and without doubt will have been expressed by the people themselves upon being questioned by their management. But the reasons behind are not that the organization has the ‘wrong’ people but that the organization has the ‘wrong’ culture: it has a culture that does not allow for, or at least discourages, decision making below Senior Management, and uses the guises of responsibility and accountability to distribute blame not learning.

In order to get everyone in an organization to make decisions in areas they are competent to make these and take responsibility and accountability for their actions, the requisite culture must encourage this behavior.

A brief site step re responsibility and accountability – in order to hold people accountable for their actions, they must have full authority to take the course of actions they find correct, they must accept responsibility for these actions, and subsequently held accountable. Authority, responsibility and accountability always go together – subtract one and you end up with nothing.

Now, back to culture. There is an old saying that, if you do not manage your organization’s culture, you will end up with the one you deserve. (which is not often the one you wish for, nor the one you believe you actually have) So, what determines a culture? A culture is determined by the direction (Purpose, vision) of the system (organization) and ring-fenced (held in check, bordered) by implicit, shared, values.
Explicit, declared, values have no impact on a culture unless they are identical with the implicit and shared values.
And here is one area where so many Culture change projects in organizations fail – ‘window-washing’, slogans, placards, or little laminated cards do not make values implicit nor shared.

Successful culture change takes strong political determination, patience and know-how.

In order to manage or change to a desired culture, top management will have to decide the hallmarks the culture of the organization they run should possess. A vision will have to be found for the organization. Management will then have to work on making this vision shared by all people in the organization. Without it, the system has no managed purpose or direction.
A body of requisite values has to be decided upon that supports the cultural hallmarks of this organization.
Management at all levels will have to develop approaches to make that body of explicit values shared and implicit.
In this step the most common mistake is made by changing these values into rules to be adhered to.
Once that happens the whole change effort is lost.

Once the organization has a culture that supports decision making at competence levels and taking responsibility and accountability without the fear of blame – sentiments as expressed by the CEO in the beginning can become things of the past.

A caveat, to actually distribute competent decision making to requisite levels and rightfully lets people being held accountable requires further work at approach and process levels, but the supportive culture is a prerequisite. Without it, behavior change will not happen.

As always, we do invite comments and discussion – private and public

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