Thursday, September 15, 2016

Workplace Microcultures

The subtext you might be missing


We know how important it is to recognize and monitor the culture within our workplaces. We know it can have either a positive or negative effect on our success. I’ve written before about the difficulty in accepting and changing our culture here and here. As the saying goes "culture eats strategy". You can plan all you want, set out your mission, vision and values, but if your workplace culture does not support your strategic plan, it may as well sit on the shelf.

You should also understand that while you, as senior management and HR pros, may set the tone and lay the groundwork for your desired culture, that’s not where it really lives. It lives with your employees, the people who actually do the work. And with any group of people, or multiple groups of people, there will be differences in how things are done. There may be subtexts, or "microcultures" you need to be aware of.

Different departments will have different cultures – influenced by different people. Culture generally refers to a system of shared beliefs, values and norms that shape behavior. You may see evidence of this when you look at the productivity or success between different departments in your company. Much of that can be explained by the microculture that lives within those groups.

And it’s the deepest level of supervision and management that plays a large part in creating these microcultures – the front line supervisor. They are the ones with the most interaction and influence over the most employees. If they don’t know, or support your desired culture, or are working at cross-purposes, that will define your culture.

As I’ve written before, you need to converse with, and listen to your employees, not just your managers, in order to get any real idea of what the culture within your organization is. But you also need to dig into how your front line supervisors and managers are relating to their employees to know what the microcultures are and how to change those, if necessary – or encourage them when appropriate.

How are employees communicated with, how often and how transparent is the communication? Are decision-making processes explained?

Do negative cliques exist; are they allowed or encouraged to exist by neglectful (or possibly even sympathetic supervisors)? These folks will put a negative spin on most company initiatives—but never openly. When a new employee joins the group, they make the effort to induct the newbie into their narrative. Always remember that your employees will be trained in the ways of your company, but who is doing the training?

Do you supervisors play favorites? Do you have employees who always seem to get the plum assignments regardless of merit? Are there folks who never seem to have to play by the rules when everyone else does? 

Who are your supervisors hiring, or recommending for hire? Are they lobbying for their friends regardless of experience and fit? Do they bypass the normal recruiting process for their choice, leaving you with more of the same?

Do you have a leader (at any level) who could win the bad behavior award every month? That bad behavior filters down to others. Pretty soon, it’s simply a part of the culture, defended with the simple phrase "it's just how things are done around here."

Is scapegoating the order of the day to deal with mistakes? Is accepting responsibility for one’s performance non-existent?

On the flip side:

Do you have a department that always seems to get it done, with the least amount of strife and stress? Are they working together, supporting one another and succeeding?

Are these the folks who seem to need the least amount of intervention? 

Are those supervisors known for clearly communicating performance expectations and recognizing staff when good work is done? Do employees know where they stand?

Do the employees within these groups understand and live your mission, vision and values? Do they actually know what your mission, vision and values are?

It’s pretty obvious which microculture you want to encourage. But you have to recognize all the subtexts that exist within your organization in order to shape your overall desired culture.

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