Q: What is the best way to handle a “problematic” company culture?
A: Organizations often hit a period when many members feel the culture is “problematic” for some reason. This is very normal and has many explanations.
Many changes often happen before the culture transforms — industry or market environment changes, key leadership changes, major growth or decline, significant shifts in the nature of the business or just characteristics of the changing workforce. Culture, on the other hand, is more deeply embedded in the organization.
Cultures are created. They usually develop during an organization’s early years or significant disruption periods and become answers to how to adapt to external demands and changes and how to integrate resources to conduct the business. Leaders and key influencers lead culture development. Over time aspects of culture get more deeply embedded throughout the workforce, in policies and training that push it toward the subconscious category (and thus harder to change). Cultures are a social phenomenon. They help people learn how to behave, fit in and get rewarded. It helps people know the “shorthand” by having routines that are common and seen as the “best or right way” to do the work.
Whenever a culture seems “problematic” it has begun to bother enough members to raise issues. It may be hindering the work, slowing things down when they need to speed up, having too many meetings that don’t seem useful, too many controlling mechanisms (approvals, meetings, micromanaging) or just affecting newer people who aren’t comfortable with how things are taking place.
Any leader can develop ways to integrate new aspects of a culture. This process of change will need lots of attention for a while. Cultures are not set in stone but often have long legacy roots within the people, systems and fabric of how an organization functions.
Leaders have more ways to either continue or change a culture. They have more power to get desired behaviors and results. They are often role models that many people will follow. And, they have access to rewards that influence people’s behavior to work within the culture or change it.
David W. Jamieson is a professor of organization development at the University of St Thomas Opus College of Business.