Changing Culture a Massive Task


Published November 15, 2014. Free Press (original article can be viewed here)


‘Firefighting’ Leadership Style Doesn’t Work

As repulsive as it is, the CBC/Jian Ghomeshi affair is a prime example of how quickly a leader in today’s society can fall from grace.

It’s also a good example how the fall can be a rather crushing experience for both the individual and the organization.

The situation also points to two additional issues of concern. First, managing an employee termination both from a human resource and a public relations perspective can be very challenging. There are so many issues to deal with including privacy, objectivity, public relations and general risk.

Second, managing the aftermath of an employee termination within an organization itself is also challenging. That’s because the remaining employees surround themselves with invisible protective gear and go into career-survival mode. They question job security, feel fear, experience an anxiety that’s not easily squelched and withhold team involvement until they once again feel secure.

Yet, managing the aftermath is a critically important issue because if something isn’t done with the broader organizational culture, I can guarantee you another similar issue will arise. I just can’t tell you when.

It is this cultural-change issue that worries me the most. That’s because I typically see leaders simply dealing with immediate “fires” and plugging holes in the system, rather than confronting the real need, that of changing the entire organizational culture.

In my experience, very few leaders, especially long-term leaders, don’t even think about the influence organizational culture can have on employee behavior. As a result, they don’t examine or determine how their existing culture is actually reinforcing the inappropriate behaviour they’ve just had to deal with.

In spite of the fact they can identify the employee-relationship behaviours they indeed do desire, they fail to determine how to change and adjust their organization’s culture to support this desired behaviour.

Changing organization culture is not easy. It is not simply a matter of identifying a new behaviour or creating a new list of values and principles to circulate in your workplace. It’s not a matter of holding a few focus groups and discussing the circumstances of the existing issue at hand.

Change takes planning, guts, persistence, education and most challenging of all, change takes time.

Managing organization change requires good, hard leadership skills. In fact, change is known as the most difficult of all leadership challenges. That’s because single-fix changes or plugging “holes” just doesn’t work.

Instead, leaders have to look at all the elements within the organization: the mission, vision, values, attitudes, goals and objectives and incumbent roles and responsibilities, as well as the structure, systems and communication strategies. All of these must be aligned, otherwise the old culture will simply remain in “remission,” only to raise its ugly head at the first opportunity. When this happens, long-term change will quickly become a thing of the past.

Managing organizational-culture change at any time is a daunting task and even more challenging when at the same time, you are recovering from a disastrous public-relations situation such as the Ghomeshi scandal. While there are multiple steps that need to be taken, the following three suggestions at least will get your organization started on a healing journey.

Leader evaluation — determine what role your leaders at each level played that led to the current crisis situation. Was the situation one that involved a lack of leadership and policy and procedural misunderstanding, a lack of training, and/or were managers putting business success ahead of employee concerns? Finally, was the situation one of not being able to determine potential risk to the organization, its employees and/or its reputation?

With the advent of social media in today’s personal and business world, leaders need to pay more attention to current and future employee behaviour that exists on what I call the “grey or bleeding edge” of acceptable behaviour. This applies to both off-work and at-work behaviour.

Organizational-systems analysis — review all of your organizational support systems, especially in the area of human resource management. Are your policies current with legislation? Are they clear to all concerned? Do managers understand how to use your policies? Do employees understand their rights and responsibilities? Have managers and employees been trained on your policies and procedures? Review your crisis issue and determine what organizational systems helped or hindered the situation and make adjustments as required.

Complaint-management review — one key area for analysis is your personnel-complaint process. Making a complaint in a smaller organization is particularly difficult because confidentiality is much more at risk. To be honest, no matter what size the organization is, most managers/leaders do not like to deal with workplace conflict and will often hold back a complaint at the informal level. The result is there will be no documentation, and if an audit is performed, there will also be no evidence of any complaints. This is exactly what is reported to have happened at CBC. Take time to review your complaint policy and its accompanying implementation tactics; refine this process until any loopholes have been covered.

Leadership development — in my view, leaders at all levels of the organization need to be aligned not only with the mission and mandate of an organization, but also with the philosophy of managing and caring for people and how this is to be carried out. I often find training for management in this area has been isolated and haphazard. I prefer seeing organizations train managers as an intact group using a very practical, hands-on training program where new learning can be immediately applied to their workplace. Then, since it is the leaders who must reinforce organizational culture, I suggest they continue with executive-coaching support in order to reinforce organizational alignment and build up personal confidence in dealing with difficult change issues.

Keep in mind, as repulsive as it is, the CBC/Ghomeshi affair is a prime example of how quickly a leader in today’s society can fall from grace. Perhaps it would be wise to adopt the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

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