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The Human Factor

Changing an organisation’s culture for survival

By Fritz Pinnock

The 1980s saw increased attention paid to organisational culture as a key determinant of success. During this period, experts argued that developing a strong organisational culture was essential for success. 

According to these experts, while the link between organisational culture and organisational effectiveness is far from certain, there is no denying that every organisation has a unique social structure. They argued that these social structures drive much of the individual behaviour observed in organisations.

Organisational culture can be viewed at three levels based on manifestations of the culture in tangible and intangible forms.

At the first level, an organisational culture can be observed in the form of physical objects, technology and visible forms of behaviour. For example, people may interact with one another, but what the underlying feelings are, or whether there is understanding among them, would require some probing. 

At the second level, there is greater awareness and internalisation of cultural values in which people in an organisation try solutions of a problem in ways which have been tried and tested in the past. If the approach is successful there will be shared perception of that ‘success’, leading to cognitive changes. Perception turns into values and beliefs.

The third level represents a process of conversion, when a group repeatedly observes that the method that was tried earlier works most of the time. This then becomes the ‘preferred solution’ and gets converted into underlying assumptions.

These three levels range on a scale from ‘superficial’ to ‘deeply embedded’. And, as cultural symbols get converted to ‘shared assumptions’, they move from a superficial level to a real internationalised level.

Nevertheless, change is inevitable and changing the organisation’s culture is always one of the toughest tasks an executive officer will ever take on. It is important to note that an organisational culture is formed over years of interaction between the individuals in the organisation. Therefore, changing the accepted culture can feel like rolling rocks uphill. Organisational cultures are formed for a reason. Perhaps the current organisational culture matches the style and comfort zone of the company’s founder or its CEO. In the Caribbean shipping industry, where companies are predominantly family owned, managers tend to hire people just like themselves. The established organisational culture is therefore reinforced by new employees.

It is sometimes argued that, for people to consider a change of an organisation’s culture, a significant event must first occur. An event such as bankruptcy or a significant loss of sales and customers may awaken people to a need for change. Even then, recognition that the organisation’s culture is the cause and that there is need for change is not always readily understood or accepted. Even if it is, the initial steps towards change are difficult to take.

The following are three significant steps to changing an organisation's culture:

1. Before an organisation can change its culture, it must first understand the current culture. 

2. Objectives of the new culture must be clearly defined. Identify where you want to go and what the organisational culture should look like to support success. Then, map the strategy and direction. Questions pertaining to what vision the organisation has for its future and how should the culture change to achieve this should be resolved.

3. Finally, the individuals in the organisation must decide to change their behaviour so as to create the desired organisational culture. This is the hardest step in culture change.


Building a team culture

Fostering teamwork will ultimately create a culture that values collaboration. In such an environment, people understand and believe that problem-solving, planning, decision-making and planned actions are better when done cooperatively. People recognise, and even assimilate, the belief that “none of us is as good as all of us”.

It’s hard to find workplaces that exemplify teamwork. In the Caribbean, for example, institutions (such as schools), family structure; sport and pastimes emphasise winning; being the best and coming out on top. Workers are rarely raised in environments that emphasise true teamwork and collaboration. One can, however, create a teamwork culture by doing just a few things right. Admittedly, they’re the hard things; but with commitment and appreciation for the value, you can create an overall sense of teamwork in your organisation.

To make teamwork a reality, the following powerful actions must occur:

1. Leaders communicate from the top the clear expectation that teamwork and collaboration are expected.

2. Leaders model teamwork in their interaction with each other and the rest of the organisation.

3. The organisation’s members talk about and identify the value of a teamwork culture.

4. Teamwork is rewarded and recognised.

5. Important stories and folklore that people discuss within the company emphasize teamwork.

Keys to team building

1. Provide training in systematic methods so that the team expends its energy on the project, not on figuring out how to work together as a team to approach it.

2. If team members are not getting along, examine the work processes they mutually own. The problem is not usually the individual personalities of the team members. It may be the fact that the team members often have not agreed on how they will deliver a product or a service or the steps required to get the problem solved. 

3. Take the team to a sporting event. Sponsor dinners at a local restaurant or in the office. Go to a movie. Hold a monthly or quarterly company meeting. Sponsor sports teams and encourage team support.

What these keys suggest is a set of value systems that are shared equally by all the members of a team. These sets of values take a long time to evolve but when achieved are sustained over a long period. They become the nucleus around which consensus can be built.