The Culture Code

It may not always be comfortable or easy for us to find solutions to the problems of a workplace culture, but culture can be changed. Some simple cause-and-effect principles can make a profound difference. However, when we decide to preserve the status quo, we have made a default choice, and we bear no less responsibility except that we don’t yet have the accompanying focus, plan and strategy to improve anything. And that’s a scary place to be. In the immortal words of Robert King ‘Bob’ Steele, former Under Secretary for Domestic Finance of the US Treasury, ‘Hope is not a strategy’. 
There are complex definitions of the word ‘culture’ but for our purposes, are they so helpful? Organisational consultants, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy defined culture as ‘the way things are done around here’. Note that the definition goes to the way things are done – not what we say is important, how we say we do things or what we say we stand for – but how we really do things.
My daily ambition as an organisational psychologist and consultant is to help clients understand that great people management is not just a means to an end but a wonderful way to catalyse engagement, productivity, and innovation. Who can be motivated and creative when their fundamental needs aren’t met? Having working with the dysfunctional and toxic through to the high performing and elite, my approach is based on the following premises: 
It is not enough to pay people a salary for turning up to work. Many moral and legal obligations are associated with the support of the employees in our care. Buying into this premise is imperative if you want to change the culture. Employees are paid to do a job. Being inspired and enriched might seem like attractive added extras. Being bullied, subjugated, demeaned, manipulated, cheated, disadvantaged unlawfully, or led by incompetents are not.
Good culture, in and of itself, will not guarantee individual and organisational performance. Other factors can compromise success even if it’s a ‘great place to work’, Having said that, a growing body of evidence suggests that good culture, compassionate leadership, and happy people in organisations create a competitive advantage. Furthermore, new evidence suggests the ability to show appreciation – one attribute of attractive leadership – is intrinsic to true happiness.
‘Bad’ cultures can be ‘successful’, according to some criteria such as profitability and shareholder return. Some organisations have terrible reputations for the way they treat staff, vendors, and customers yet make a lot of money, particularly if they have something everyone wants that not many people supply. Yes, they can succeed in the absence of real competition, at least for a while. But listen to the way people people talk about them and the lengths to which a resentful customer can be willing to go to find an alternative supplier. People are more likely to rely on what others say about an organisation than what it says about itself, and a bad reputation is only a few key strokes away on a Google search. In an era where disgruntled customers or ex-employers can set up websites dedicated to flaming you or send an instantaneous tweet into the twitterverse, bad behaviour cannot be taken lightly. It hurts business. 
Some people will be content to, or at least prepared to, work in bad cultures. I make no simplistic threat that we will automatically lose our best and brightest because of a toxic work environment (especially if some of our best and brightest are the ones contributing to the toxicity). Why? Some of them deliver, so the organisation sacrifices culture for performance. Those who don’t perpetrate but stay and suffer may have chained themselves to the organisational treadmill via discounted loans and lucrative benefits or conditions. They may be financially vulnerable or apprehensive about entering the job market and the devil they know seems preferable. They may be extremely well remunerated or enjoy other aspects of the work (e.g. high autonomy) that, in their mind, balances out the equation. They may be able to objectify the bad or unethical behaviour as separate from them and display above-average resilience. However, some staff will feel victimised or compromised by the prevailing culture and will not fare so well. The lack of choice, or the perception of a lack of choice, and the ensuing feelings of entrapment contribute substantially to illness and depression as well as change resistance. 
Every person who works in a company is a custodian of the company’s culture, but some will have more impact than others. Each of us interacts with, behaves, makes decisions, and has some control over something or someone, so each of us helps shape the place where we work. Many of us know the famous quote from George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’. And as Captain Ramsey said in Crimson Tide: ‘We’re here to preserve democracy, not practise it’.
In a system (e.g. team, department or company), everyone influences the system, but some will have more ‘reach’ than others. Again, context is key here. We have the capacity to disrupt the system by performing one action that is different from what we did yesterday (also known as the Butterfly Effect) and create the potential for a different reaction. For those reading this, who are seriously senior and carry real clout, you can make the biggest difference to others and the system. 
If you’re a leader, your people watch you. Leadership is like parenting: your children learn from you when you want them to, and they learn from you when you don’t. You can’t just turn to staff on any given day and say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling really credible and emotionally intelligent today. Could you just please follow someone else while I go into a cupboard and scream into a pillow?’ 
What you do carries more weight. Therefore, if you behave badly, it has more gravitas. There is also more permission around it. You tend to have more freedom, choice and pull than anyone else in the organisation but you also have to carry the most responsibility. If many staff are honest, they want to be you or be liked by you, the psychoanalytic parent figure, so they will do what they need to do to please you (feeding their aspirational drive) or guard against abandonment or rejection by you (harnessing their protective drive). Plus if you’re in charge and let them get away with the bad behaviour, even if you don’t perpetrate it yourself, then you’re saying it’s acceptable behaviour. That may serve as classical conditioning for the behaviour to be repeated, especially if the behaviour invokes positive consequences. 
On the other hand, good culture and performance do not automatically go together, nor are they mutually exclusive. I have worked with highly profitable organisations that drive their people very hard and have ugly reputations but high engagement. Some companies pride themselves on their ability to look after their people, yet settle for mediocrity as people take advantage of soft or absent leadership; becoming spoilt, entitled, and motivated entirely by self-interest. However, the leaders of an organisation are the custodians of its culture and may have to make gutsy decisions in the name of culture and ethics, that at least initially, fly in the face of business interests. Every transaction we have with people will either perpetuate or shift the workplace culture. 
We get the culture we deserve and the behaviour we’re prepared to tolerate.