I am lucky enough to spend time with some really great business owners and managers. Without exception they are good people who work very hard to keep their businesses working for today’s demands and tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. How they go about it however, is quite different, and with quite different behaviours, cultures and outcomes.
Many argue that organisational team culture originates with the team, but in SMEs that is clearly not the case. Simply, unless managers have no control over their own time, behaviours and the hiring, performance management, communication and relationships they have with their team, they are without doubt the keeper of their organisation’s cultural environment. In the absence of respected leadership and a culture that connects with the team, alternative cultures, some potentially toxic, will flourish because social gaps will always be filled (remember, the workplace is a social system). If managers don’t fill them, someone else will.
At this time it’s probably a good idea to acknowledge that organisations, like any other social system, typically have many different micro-cultures. And, as with any other social system, contemporary cultures (ie those not linked to traditions, symbols, race, religion, customs, core beliefs etc) generally originate from a variety of influential people. While there are likely to be quite a few influential people or groups, the leadership of the organisation is always in a position to be one of the most dominant. And, as with society in general, the most successful leaders will also identify other influential people or groups, and try to leverage their influence to gain the support of the whole social system. The point here is that yes, the preferred culture will always be surrounded by alternatives, but the environment, nature and reach of those alternatives can be heavily influenced.
Here are some examples of cultures that have been shaped by management practice over a period of time:
For Owner A, team is everything. Performance is supported but not driven, mistakes occur and shortcuts happen, but they don’t threaten the business or its reputation. Honesty is high, salaries are low, loyalty and retention are high. Is the business profitable? Yes. Could it be more profitable? Yes. The fine line between driving performance and affecting employee engagement and happiness hasn’t been reached at this early stage but it exists, as does the goodwill to start exploring it.
For Owner B, getting by in a tough industry was everything. Team was but a tool to be controlled and directed. Retention was not high, but inertia and militancy was. On the other hand, communications were poor, as was honesty and trust. Mistakes were penalised and emotions were destructive on all sides. After a regrettable emotional event, discontent spread and the workforce unionised. Over the past year the leader of this business has made great steps to change the culture, starting with how she thinks, acts and communicates, but rebuilding trust is a long slow process, especially with disaffected stalwarts still in the business and a union looking to increase membership and influence.
For Manager C, over decades the team was run purely as a labour force. Again, the directors of the business are good people, but by focusing on errors and the employment relationship as an almost purely financial one, the workers have become increasingly unionised to the point that their demands threaten the very viability of the business. Employee engagement was not acknowledged as more than something to be expected, but not nurtured. By being focused almost entirely on outcomes, compliance and customer needs, some senior staff felt forced to use their power to get things done “properly”. Demands were high, as were hours, criticism and costly errors. The result is a deeply unhappy team at all levels, seen in resignations, militant unionisation and a trust gap the width of the Grand Canyon. I can’t begin to tell you just how ingrained habits and attitudes still are and how much work is still needed to change the culture and the outlook for the business – starting with the Directors.
Owner D has recently started a much smaller business. She is very open to ideas and is a keen learner. She knows that mistakes occur, and that she makes a fair proportion of them. She knows that her team are all multi-dimensional humans with complex lives and needs. She sees her leadership role as being their supporter, their facilitator, the one who allows them to get on with their jobs and use the skills and personal attributes she hired them for. Employee engagement is great and on the back of a few new performance management practices productivity is improving all the time. One team member even refused the recent opportunity of a pay rise because he sees it as unnecessary and feels he is compensated in more meaningful ways!
In some ways it might be said to be unfair to simply compare these businesses and pick faults – the industries are widely disparate and there are major physical and psychological differences between them. Each needs a different organisational culture. One management approach does not fit all. And in some industries it might be difficult to keep a low level of discontent and/or militant trade unionism out, but that doesn’t mean the door has to be left open for them.
Through my experiences with clients over many industries, the pattern is clear and undeniable – if the team are recruited, trained and enthusiastically supported with trust, honesty and respect, they are more likely to be engaged and ready for positive performance management to empower themselves, contributing to their own self-development and the success of the business. In every case, the business’s culture, and consequent behaviours and performance, inevitably rewards this approach.
Where organisational problems and employee disengagement exist, gaining trust and repairing relationships can be difficult, requiring awareness, training, sincerity and intentional behavioural changes over an extended and permanent period on the part of managers and owners. Unfortunately, not all are capable or willing, and some want to live in the past. Well, that’s OK for those happy having their business also become a thing of the past, but for the rest of us the path is clear.
Some managers acknowledge that they team they have is the one they deserve – and some even accept that the employee engagement and organisational culture they have is just as much a result of their own example, decisions and actions. Truly, the team culture we get is the one we create.
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