At the American Society for Association Executive (ASAE)’s At Work conference in early October, I facilitated a session on cultivating a healthy organizational culture. When asked what they associated with the term organizational culture, participants had lots of responses. Values, communications, hierarchy and energy were mentioned most frequently. The word cloud to the left summarizes the variety of responses.
Organizational culture, as defined by Edgar Schein, is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
While there are visible parts of culture such as dress code, the organization’s mission, work environment, policies and procedures and strategic statements, most of culture in implicit and not readily visible. It has to be learned. This could be through story and conversation or more powerfully by making mistakes that break unspoken rules and assumptions.
One organizational culture model
Human Synergistics International’s Organizational Culture inventory is a commonly used organizational assessment that uncovers an organization’s cultural style. They group cultures in three styles, including constructive, passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive. A constructive culture, in their model, supports achievement, self-actualization and encourages people within the organization to work cooperatively with each other. A passive/defensive culture encourages people to follow the rules, values dependability, solutions tend to be conventional and conflict is avoided. An aggressive/defensive style values people who vie for status and influence by challenging each other, by taking charge and compete with each other. This style also tends to celebrate perfectionism and long hours. Of these three styles, the constructive style (not surprising considering its name!) is the healthiest culture and is most closely correlated with deeper employee engagement and better organizational results.
What do healthy organizations do differently?
Having used this assessment with many of her nonprofit clients, Dr. Elizabeth Scott researched what nonprofit organizations that have a healthy culture do differently than their peers with less healthy organizational cultures. She found that these organizations take distinctive action in two major areas – people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some specific actions that they take include infusing fun into their work, focusing on self-care and work-life balance and empowering staff to carry out the mission on their own. In terms of their human resources practices, they see human resources staff as a partner, they engage in careful hiring, onboarding as well as off boarding when needed. They provide ongoing training and regular feedback and place an emphasis on teamwork.
Cultivating a healthy culture
I asked participants in the session what their organization was doing in the areas of people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some current steps in people practices that people mentioned include new employee welcome and mentoring program, a new idea generation group that meet regularly, every other Friday off, employee engagement surveys and committees, staff retreats and telecommuting options. For encouraging employee well being, people mentioned fun committees, culture committees, book groups, gym reimbursement, movie day and other wellness initiatives.
Intention & leadership support
What I appreciate about most of these ideas is that for the most part they are not costly. What they require is intention and support from leadership. Support for people to take the time to come together and plan fun activities as well as the time and permission within the culture for people to participate.
That permission is key. I have seen organization that have tried some of these things – putting a foosball table and other board games in the lunch room for example. Yet the culture valued quiet and the CEO was known to publically question people when they took a break. So very few people used the foosball table or the games because it went against both unspoken and spoken ‘rules” within the culture. Other examples include organizations that have elaborate telecommuting policies or flexible leave policies that few take advantage of because face time and being seen in the office is highly valued.
What of these ideas could your organization try? And if you do – how will you make sure people know they really have permission to engage! Does your organization’s culture need some attention? Inquire about a coaching call.
At this year’s ASAE Annual Conference, I moderated a session called, Walking the Talk of Change Leadership. At the beginning of the session, we asked audience members to write the questions they about the topic on index cards. We told one change leadership story then spent the rest of the session answering as many questions as we could. You can read an article about the session here. These were the questions we did not get to during the session.
1. Change in part takes a diverse board (gender, ethnicity, and age). How do you achieve that? “No more old white men boards.”
If you are not already doing so, implement and enforce term limits. Be proactive about publicizing the application and nominations process for your board. Get beyond current board members’ personal networks. Those networks will most likely be mirrors of who is already on your board. Create leadership development programs to train and prepare new leaders. Prioritize investing in emerging leaders who bring new perspectives to your board. And do not assume it’s only about emerging leaders – there may be leaders in your midst that you have simply looked past.
2. Why change? What we’re doing is working!
It is challenging to move any change forward if there is not any sense of urgency or recognition that issues exist. Consider helping those guarding the status quo to consider wider trends that could impact the organization. Or start elsewhere with a few allies. Start small and share successes.
3. How do you promote change and new ideas without current staff freaking out?
What are current staff freaking out about? What is it about the change that is upsetting them? Have you asked them? Is there something you can learn from their resistance? Can you iterate in way that addresses their concerns? Which ideas are low hanging fruit and could be implemented relatively easily? Share your early wins with those who are afraid of changes to demonstrate the benefits.
4. How to convince the board permanent staff is required versus volunteers?
Build the business case for the change. What is not currently getting done or done consistently with volunteers? What skills and knowledge are unique to your volunteer base? What would benefit from being professionalized? What will each group bring to the table to create a greater partnership? Who would benefit from making the change? What will the upsides be to making the shift? Also address the downsides so that those considering the change do not feel like they are being “sold.”
5. How do you manage the change as the change is happening?
Recognize and acknowledge to your staff that it may not feel like “management” while things are in flux. Even if things are moving fast, take a little time out to take stock and see where you are, where you have come from and what is coming next. Celebrate your small wins along the way.
6. How do you create energy for radical change when there is no crisis or chaos acting as a lever?
It is unlikely that you will be able to move quickly to radical change without a crisis. Consider where can you create energy for change, even if it is not yet radical. You might consider facilitating a conversation that helps the group consider the environmental trends that could spur a crisis if the organization is not paying attention.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.