Towards a reflective culture

Many articles and books have been written on organizational culture and culture change. On of my favourites is Joanne Martins classic three perspectives which proposes three complimentary views Рintegration, differentation and fragmentation.

Although it has been demonstrated by Martin and others that organizational culture is something fluid and ambiguous, most management advisors and consulting firms continue talk about culture changes as something that can be designed and configured by planned interventions. No wonder that most programs intending to “roll out” new values fail miserably!

If organizational cultures are in fact fluid and ambigious, perhaps we should not talk about culture change, but culture development. Rather than trying to enforce certain values or behaviors, but to bring the organization in to a “reflective” state in which managers and employees are involved in an ongoing dialogue about what is required to meet complex and dynamic demands.

There are two key dimensions that can either support or inhibit a reflective culture – performance management systems and management behaviors.

Based on my experience, flawed performance management systems contributes to the majority of failed “culture change” projects. In other words, if employees are measured on their individual contribution only, there is a likelyhood that you will get a bunch of ego-centric divas with razorblades on their elbows – no matter how soft and fuzzy the official corporate values may be. One classic example is a major software and services company, striving to introduce a “trusted advisor” concept across the organization. However, they continued to measure the sales staff only on their ability to close contracts, which incited them to continue to oversell in terms of unrealistic promises and underperform in terms of selling profitable work. The outcome was disappointed customers and high stress rates among project managers, who were never able to meet their targets.

Another key component is management behaviors. Managers need to be ready to improve own behaviors, admit mistakes and support employees in their development process with everything they say and do. If managers consider themselves “above” or “exempt” from the values framework, why would employees bother? In deed, “living” other values than management would be a dangerous move.

As a summary, three key dimensions to consider for cultural development projects:

  • Culture is an ongoing process, and should be managed as such
  • Aligned performance measures are key to success
  • Management need to demonstrate the aspired behaviors in everything they say and do

Measured on these dimensions, how reflective is your organization?

(Illustration by Matthias Rosenkranz)

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