One of the many common phrases I hear in organizations and from people working in several organizations is that they operate in a very political environment, a stressful environment, a bureaucratic environment and that the culture is toxic, challenging or simply bad. This is often followed by a more hopeful comment that they are trying to change the culture, but that it tends to fail, relapse or simply never gets any traction.
The truth, however, is that calling anything in this context a political environment or stressful environment, etc. is not helpful and creates a sense of being victim to the environment, when in fact it will be more accurate to describe it as an issue of culture. Culture we can do something about. So the starting point would be to be clear on the origin of the ‘political’, ‘stressful’, etc. environment as a matter of culture.
I’m going to share with you an analogy I often use with people who complain about failing culture change strategies and interventions in their organizations. For many of the people with whom I share this analogy it makes a lot of sense and helps them to clearly identify the issue they are dealing with in many cases. The analogy does not mean that all culture problems are related to this specific example, but in many cases, it is the reason for culture change misalignment or inertia.
Several times a year I hear from middle and senior managers that they keep getting pushed harder to change the culture in their teams in order to align with organizational objectives and strategies. But that they struggle to implement, maintain and encourage the changes required. In many of these instances, they feel extremely frustrated and it manifests as stress, which is why they talk to me in the first instance. They think the problem is stress when it is, in fact, frustration with not feeling able to move the seemingly immovable.
There have been several definitions of what organizational culture actually is and how to define it, and in summary, we can simply say it is the way we behave and do things based on our shared values, including the way we exhibit it to ourselves internally and those external to our organizations and teams.
Keeping this broad description of organizational culture in mind and after hearing their side of the story where one of the most common issues I hear sticks out its head, again and again, I proceed to tell them a story of a family. The dad and mom have four children. Two of the children were older and already in their teens, well on their way to becoming parents in the near future. They had two younger siblings who were still in the pre-teen years. The parents told the two older siblings to help them guide the younger children to become aligned with the family values and what we might call culture in an organizational setting. The aim was to align everyone in the family with the same values and norms in order to present the family in a particular way to the world out there and mostly to live together harmoniously.
On a weekly basis, the parents would remind the two older siblings of their important role in helping their younger siblings to understand and live the culture of the family, and that it seems to them that this is not really happening – the two youngest members of the family still don’t behave as expected. Eventually, the parents call everyone in the family together and tell them again what is expected and why. Job done! Nevertheless, there is little change in the behavior of the younger siblings. The two teens in the family become more frustrated by the day because they have to maintain a set of chores to ensure what needs to be done gets done in a family of this size, and the parents are very busy, but invisible and away from home very often. The teens are also expected to often clean up after the younger siblings, to keep them engaged in the family but also to model the expected behaviors aligned with the family culture now written on the walls of the house they live in to also make the children feel more accountable when other people visit them at home.
The parents were too busy with their own things and to ensure there is sufficient income to sustain life for all the members of the family, and consequently, they struggled to engage more with everyone in the family. They notice the misaligned behavior of the younger siblings every now and again because it seems more obvious than the many instances of their good behavior that goes unnoticed because it simply is expected – yet never encouraged or commended. The poor misaligned behavior is especially obvious when it was in the presence of or towards people outside the family who would then complain about it or talk about it to the parents. The parents find this slightly insulting and naturally call everyone in the family together and then have another more serious conversation with the two teens separately, who by now feel pretty fed-up with the situation, which is usually when I get the call to provide some advice or a sense of clarity, mostly from a resilience or stress management perspective.
But a more glaring issue is their description of the parents’ behavior. It would seem that the parents’ behavior does not align with what they expect of the four children.
When they describe the issue to me I hear a common and persistent theme. That is that they, the teens in the family, are inundated with chores that seem to lead to nowhere and have no practical value, and that spending time with the younger siblings is becoming more and more difficult. But a more glaring issue is their description of the parents’ behavior. It would seem that the parents’ behavior does not align with what they expect of the four children. The two teens have a real problem convincing the two younger siblings to behave more aligned with the family values and culture. It is glaringly obvious that the younger siblings simply feel undervalued by the parents, do not see the expected behavior modelled and they feel disengaged from contributing meaningfully to the family. There also seems to be a dissonance between having respect for the position of the parents, but not the behavior of the parents. In other words, respecting the title and not the title bearer.
The two teens both feel the same way, but didn’t want to tell each other that for fear that one of them might accuse the other one of not being aligned with the culture, or out of concern that they may be reported as incompetent to deal with the situation. They also didn’t know how to approach the parents about the issue and were cautious that there might be retribution of some sort. They also respected the parents too much to approach them and talk about the challenges, after all, that seems too much like reprimanding someone more experienced who probably knows better. But mostly they feel “what is the point?” That the parents will simply do whatever they want to do, whether it aligns with the culture and values or not and that culture was simply seen as part of a transactional organizational goal rather than as something that determines how everything they do in the family is done.
If we then go back to the first paragraph about environment and culture, we can deduce from this analogy that the parents set the climate that affects the environment.
The children perceive the climate and consequent environmental outcomes set by the parents. That determines the culture, what people do, how they do it, what they value. The parents don’t just set the climate, they need to live and behave in a way that is obvious to all family members, and when they slip up – which will happen inevitably because they are, after all, only human – they apologise and rectify the situation. The teens and their younger siblings have impeccable sensory abilities to pick up on paper-based culture and values that do not align with the visible or invisible behavior that they experience.