In South Africa (and we are not special – this is happening around the world), we are confronted with daily headlines that repeatedly remind us that all is not as it should be. We read of the likes of Bell Pottinger and KPMG – stories that describe a company culture that supports and encourages behaviour that speaks to a lack of integrity; our own government appears to be rotten to the core, where corruption and capture are simply how things are done around here; companies that sanction dishonesty in pursuit of market dominance and billings. One can be forgiven for believing that the rot has gone too far and that the patient is doomed to die of gangrene.
Changing the culture of an organisation is difficult, but it is not impossible. If you have been handed what appears to be a poisoned chalice – think of Cyril Ramaphosa, who appears to be sincere in his wishes to clean up the ANC, and Nhlamu Dlomu who has been afforded her own special opportunity to fly KPMG, South Africa – you will need to think very carefully about what it will take to bring about the change that is required to restore trust in your brand and create a positive culture.
This is not the preserve of the seriously tainted organisation either. Successful organisations with strong brands can also succeed despite the prevalent negative leadership culture. Think of those companies you have dealt with or heard of that are leaders in their markets, but scratch beneath the surface and you may find a culture in terms of which “the way we do things around here” is experienced negatively by those inside the organisation. Perhaps executives get away with being bullies, going after colleagues who they perceive as opponents (or on the other team) even to the extent of sabotaging them and their careers; and companies where the only managers who get ahead are those who kick butt and take names – even if there are more positive leaders who achieve real results without ruining lives. What about those companies where the Financial Director is expected to “massage” the results in order to tell the board what they want to hear? You can be sure that this extends to all other parts of the organisation where people at every level have learned to be creative in their reporting in order to ensure that the higher ups only hear what they want to hear – for to hear the truth would incur intolerable wrath and end careers.
I believe that these examples of negative company culture can be found in most companies – even if only in pockets – and the price will be paid, whether it is in the form of some scandal, broken employees, low morale or declining results.
So what is to be done? In this series of articles, I will discuss what can be done to turn a negative culture around and create a way of doing things around here that is constructive, healthy and worthy of pride, while delivering results. Let’s be clear, culture is driven from the top – be it the leader of an entire business or the leader of a junior team. The leader creates and drives culture. The leader shows the rest what behaviour is desired and what will be rewarded. You cannot change culture from the middle – it has to start at the top.
To start with, it is important to take stock:
- What is your personal value system? How do you believe people should be treated – colleagues as well as customers? What are your beliefs about how people should go about achieving results? What do you believe it takes to get people to perform – do you have to be tough on people or do you need to be tough on task while being supportive of people?
- What have you noticed and why does it trouble you? What are the behaviours you have noticed? What language is used? What do you think it is causing or supporting that behaviour?
- What would you prefer to see? What currently mitigates against this? How are people rewarded and punished, and how does this mitigate against more desirable behaviours? Is your own behaviour consistently congruent with the culture you would like to create? If it isn’t, you need to start with yourself!
- Who do you have around you? Whose behaviour exemplifies a more desirable culture? Whose behaviour emulates the undesirable culture that you see? Of these people, who do you think might be behaving in this way in order to survive, rather than because this behaviour squares with their own beliefs and values? Who might you enrol as collaborators with you? Who else? And who else? Who are the opinion-leaders around here? How might you enrol some of them? How will you enrol them? This enables you to create a team that will drive the change you seek to achieve.
In the coming articles, I will share how you might go about creating positive change in your own organisation’s culture, and will include a case study that shows just how quickly culture can be changed if you are single-minded about it.