Climate and Culture
Creating a Positive Organizational Culture
If an organization truly wants to create an open, “can-do” and broadly positive culture they first need to ask themselves whether people feel that they can speak with complete frankness about the state of things within the team, department and entire enterprise of which they are a part. If the answer to this question is that they feel that there is a “shoot-the-messenger” climate, so that anyone who reveals bad news about an issue or situation will get punished for it, then the culture will be far from positive and much work may need to be done to create more openness. This is simply because in such a closed or cautious climate, when any surprising, unwanted or negative piece of information arises, the focus is more often on finding people or groups to blame or even searching for an individual scapegoat. It may also lead to other negative behaviors such as:
- information or data about internal work conditions may be covered up or hidden
- unclear, confusing or even unsafe or unhealthy work practices are left in place or are just waiting to happen
- serious malfunctions of policy or practice are not addressed by decision-makers
- Managerial incompetence or poor decision-making in general prevails at many levels
Issues only get ‘hidden in organizational closets’ if people feel that they had better not speak out about things. In such circumstances, any real truth-telling or what is often called “whistle-blowing” is more likely to be punished rather than rewarded. In such a closed climate, it may therefore make more short-term sense (from a job protection perspective) for internal employees at all levels to shut up. This climate is, of course, most unhealthy for the day-to-day running of any organization, large and small, and its true undesirability is often revealed in a crisis.
In a “shoot-the-messenger” climate, there is a major barrier to an organization being genuinely open or transparent: an open or transparent organization has a free flow of information, and has a proactive, “get-the-crisis-before-it-gets-us” approach. It’s therefore reasonable to surmise that the more transparent an organization is, then the more likely it is that such an organization will:
- be fairly creative (to the extent that creativity is fed by free flows of information and communication)
- see mistakes as learning opportunities, rather than triggers for blaming and victimization
- tend to solve problems well, by looking for underlying causes rather than surface symptoms
- tend to be a pleasant place to work in
- inspire loyalty and commitment rather than disloyalty and lack of commitment
Apart from organizational openness or transparency, another barrier to creating a positive organizational culture is Groupthink. Groupthink occurs in teams and even whole organizations which do not have high levels of healthy or constructive conflict (not destructive conflict but conflict in terms of ideas, how to achieve goals and when resources need to be re-aligned).
In organizations with high levels of groupthink, morale may be high, and people back each other up. To all external appearances, such groups and organizations appear to be highly effective, and also exciting to work with (at least in the short-term). Strangely enough, however, such groups can often make bad decisions. This is because members feel that they should not speak out when they know something is actually or potentially wrong: they shut up when they should speak out so as to maintain team harmony above all else.
In a shoot-the-messenger climate, the Groupthink phenomenon can even more effectively prevent an organization from being truly open or transparent. This is because information flows are heavily inhibited and controlled and any informal organizational communication systems break down (as trust about what is being said gets lower and lower).
You can tell an organization has problems with its communication channels when you hear people say things like:
- What’s the use in sending an email/memo? No-one will read it anyway …
- I did a report on that, but it sank without trace …
- But I pointed that out to you in an email/memo/report last month!
- Why didn’t they tell us!
- Nobody listens around here …
- If you want to know what’s going on around here, try the grapevine …
ANTIDOTES TO GROUPTHINK
If groupthink is one of the greatest inhibitors to creating a positive organizational culture then, what are some of the things that we can do to lessen this risk or act as an antidote to the problem? Here are a few ideas:
- Always encourage people and teams to examine alternatives, generate contingency plans. Don’t be trapped into thinking that there’s only one solution: insist that multiple solutions be proposed for bigger issues or problems. Always have a Plan B, and preferably, a Plan C and D.
- Appoint a Devil’s Advocate on every team. A Devil’s Advocate is someone empowered by the group to always present a critical, worst-case-scenario view – without the group thinking any the worse of that person. It may be that people should be rotated through this role though so that the person is not seen as always negative.
- Increase group size when the issue is large enough in scale. In other words, break the cozy dynamics of the group by adding people temporarily from other teams for meetings, brainstorms or discussion on a given subject, and use this to introduce people who are from different backgrounds, opinions, problem- solving styles. Such people can challenge the consensus and expose the blind-spots of an over-homogeneous group.
- Specifically check for Groupthink symptoms from time-to-time. Have all members of the group, team or organization familiar with Groupthink as a concept so as to be able to “police” their own behavior. At the end of important meetings and conversations, check to see that none of the symptoms have been present.
- Reward confronters. Create a norm or accepted model of behavior of frankness and outspokenness, so that every person may express views and doubts without being pressured, overtly or subtly.