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We would all like to build a strong, stable organizational culture. Yet, we often underestimate the enormity of the challenge to do so. I’ve spent years as a consultant, diagnosing organizational issues — and if I have learned one cogent lesson it is this: It is always difficult to face what has gone wrong.
In a sense, we dance around the issues. We build compensatory mechanisms to manage the fallout. We make excuses.
In the end, we often treat the entire situation like a spoiled child that we would rather not upset. Yet, to truly build a stronger organization — we must honestly examine and address the elements that have contributed to its current state. (In my practice, I often utilize the philosophy of Core Stability to support the exploration phase of a client relationship. See a definition below.)
Organizational Core Stability: A confluence of elements including, but not limited to: 1) clarity surrounding the development/communication of mission, goals, strategy and expressed values, 2) clear governance, 3) alignment of resource priorities, 4) shared performance metrics.
No argument here, facing the music can be a painful process. There can be discussions of blame, of thwarted efforts to improve, of unrelenting, stubborn obstacles. However, examining the discord — note by note — is the only way to move forward. (I’ve found that my role is just as much about cushioning the blow, as it is diagnostic.)
If your organization has begun this process, take heart — and remember the following:
1. No one sets out to build a sick culture. I’m going to absolve everyone of their guilt in the name of forward progress. Horrible cultures seem to take on a life of their own. Time, growth, and the wrong metrics — push organizations further down the wrong path — somewhat like a bully that is intent to steal your lunch money. The resulting condition can serve as a devastating blow, yet no one wanted it to happen.
2. Letting go of blame can be liberating. When we let go of blame, of silos and functional turf, we can get to the business of changing things. Stabilizing the organization is the first step on the road the rehabilitation. Internal organizational stability requires that you examine topics such as governance, decision-making, resources and how you treat your people. Rebuilding your culture starts from the nucleus and moves outward. (Moreover, “dark-side” elements, such as narratives that over-ride healthy habits, must be unearthed and quickly addressed.)
3. Start small and behave differently. The proof is in the pudding as they say — and the best way to improve a sick culture is for it to behave differently. If you manage a team or department, make no mistake, it is a living, breathing micro culture. Know that if observed behaviors do not change in line with a declared change, there is little hope of rehabilitation. The culture will continue to decline and the organization will lose both people and opportunities.
Change is often about forgiveness.
About re-focusing toward the future and leaving painful narratives behind.
In a sense, this must be extended to the larger organization as well.
Allow it to move on.
Have you ever been involved in an effort to change an unhealthy culture? Was it successful? What were the greatest challenges?
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her training series The Core — helps people & organizations build a stronger work life foundation. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.