Each organization has a life of its own. Whether the organizational culture is dynamic and healthy, or dysfunctional and erratic is hard to tell at a glance. Organizations are often like puzzles compromised of varied little pieces that act as a whole. IBM did a study where it found that the barrier to change in corporate strategy was most often “corporate culture”. Most leaders are aware of one-tenth of what is going on in an organization. It can be thought of as an iceberg, the leadership notices the parts that can be seen, and often fails to recognize the bulk that is under water. Just like a ship headed for an iceberg, an organization’s long-term sustainability depends on the leadership’s ability to find out how the organization thinks, feels, and acts behind the daily veneer. According to a recent report from Deloitte, 87% of today’s leaders cite culture and employee engagement as one of their top organizational challenges. Leaders cannot change what they don’t understand, therefore the question is how to understand organizational culture?
To expand on the iceberg metaphor: the visible part of the iceberg are the norms and behaviors of the employees that are engaged in work. This is the daily buzz of the office, and the status quo. The favorite catchall “The way things are done around here” can sometimes be heard around the office. Indicators of issues at the visible level are: high turnover rate, business performance suffering, and disengaged employees. The less visible part of the iceberg are personal values and attributes which are more internalized aspects of employee behavior. Issues at this level include: stagnant innovation, underdeveloped leadership, and frustration with current process. Finally, the invisible part of the iceberg are the cultural values and assumptions. This is intertwined with the DNA of the organization. The deepest issues are: misaligned culture and strategy, resistance to change, and unclear values which are very damaging to the performance and sustainability of the organization.
Here are 3 solutions to improve the organizational culture:
- Keep Asking “Why”- If the leadership team asks “why” in an organization, and the answer is “that’s the way things have always been done”, the suggestion is to persist and not take the answer at face value. In order to dig deeper into the beliefs and assumptions of the organization, a leader must consistently ask probing questions and get to the root of what makes the organizational culture tick.
- Get Personal- How do the personal values of the leadership team serve or undercut the organizational culture? Are the leadership team’s personal values aligned with the values of the organization? How are these personal values reflected in the daily social norms and behaviors? These are thought provoking questions that influence organizational culture on different levels.
- Seek Outside Help- A rigorous assessment done by an outsider who is not part of the organizational culture can expose strengths and weaknesses. The opportunity for an outsider to see things differently and ask why things that done the way they are done will result in a clear plan of action for improvement.
Finally, organizational culture is like an iceberg as long as the leadership team does not seek out ways to see below the surface of the organizational culture. When the issues at different depths of the iceberg are recognized, an opportunity arises to change the current environment. A leadership team that asks probing questions, assesses personal values, and seeks outside help for an organization can keep its culture in safe waters.