RESPONSE-ability: Engaging to Shape the Ideal Workplace | EAPA-SA

Organisational culture sets the stage for how employees are expected to behave within a workplace and it impacts their workplace experience. It is a subtle and complex entity that survives and evolves mostly through gradual shifts in leadership, strategy, and other circumstances. The hands-on shaping of culture starts with senior leadership who lay the foundation through establishing an organisation’s vision and values.  In this way corporate culture sets the standard for how employees will treat each other and their customers.  As a result, organisational culture has a direct impact on the financial performance of an organisation.

Organisational culture, while it starts at the top, is organic and flexible in that it is shaped on an ongoing basis by its employees through their collective beliefs and behaviours. Too many organisations have words that define visions and values in writing that the majority of their work force are not even aware about or believe to be true.  Visions and values may be on display that do not hold true against employees’ day-to-day working experience.  This disconnect will do nothing but create scepticism and erode trust.

It is important for senior management to keep an ongoing focus on shaping and managing organisational culture in order to gain and maintain employee trust.

Authenticity is the key according to the outcome of three years of investigative journalism into the ideal workplace by a team from Harvard Business Review.  See the full article at:

The article found that “…underlying the differences of circumstance, industry, and individual ambition we found six common imperatives. Together they describe an organization that operates at its fullest potential by allowing people to do their best work. We call this “the organization of your dreams.” In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.” The article goes on to say, “These may seem like very straight-forward criteria by which the majority of organisations will operate, however the findings indicate that very few organisations exhibit all six of these qualities.”

So, what can management do if they want to make positive changes to their organisational culture?”

How often have you encountered aspirations to “change the company’s culture” that actually manage to change the way that employees behave and the way in which they work?

Experts in organisational change say it can be hard to make sweeping changes in workplace culture, especially for large organizations with complex office dynamics and multiple offices scattered around the globe. What’s more, a company’s culture can vary across different departments. It’s best to start small by focusing on individual departments or offices. Targeting the most dysfunctional groups first, for instance, can deliver much bigger results than a more general approach when trying to change an organization…”1

Research shows that companies that use a few specific cultural catalysts — that is to say, those that use informal emotional approaches to influencing behaviour — are significantly more likely to experience change that lasts.2

Here are three steps in getting to grips with and changing organisation culture: 

  1. Define your ideal

This is where senior leaders can publicly inject their expectations and standards, such as the kinds of behaviours they expect.

  • What kind of culture does management and employees want?
  • How will this benefit the organisation, management, employees and customers?
  1. Assess and work within your current culture

While it is difficult to assess your own culture, you can obtain a picture of your current culture in several ways. To participate in the assessment of your culture, you must try to become an impartial observer, looking with the eyes of an outsider at your organisational culture in action.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • How do people interact with each other?
  • Are there conflicts and how are these conflicts resolved?
  • How do senior leaders interact with middle managers and employees?
  • How do middle managers interact with reporting employees?

Participate in a ‘culture walk’:

One way to observe the culture in your organisation is to take a walk around the premises and observe some of the physical signs of culture. Clues to current organisational culture:

  • Watch for emotions. Emotions are indications of people’s values. People do not get excited or upset about things that are unimportant to them. Do people seem engaged, interactive, happy, friendly, or miserable and withdrawn?
  • Look at the objects that sit on desks and hang on walls. Observe common areas and furniture arrangements. Are they interactive or are they sterile?
  • Listen and look for things that are not there. If nobody mentions something that you think is important this can provide interesting insight.

Interview the employees in small groups:

Another way to understand the culture of your organization is to interview your employees in small groups. It is equally important to observe the behaviours and interaction of the people as it is to hear what they say.  As defining culture is difficult you will gain the most information by asking indirect questions, such as:

  • What is the one thing you would most like to change about this organisation?
  • What do you like most about the company?
  • Who is a hero around here? Why?
  • What kinds of people fail in the organisation?
  1. Regularly and objectively measure the culture:

This does not need to be an ordeal. There are various tools that can be employed to analyse the consequences of employee health, engagement and productivity – or employee engagement.

  • The typical approach is an annual engagement survey where employees are asked to rate their own level of engagement through various types of questions. This approach provides good input into the employee attitude side of the equation providing the survey responses are honest. Unfortunately surveys do not provide objective data on just how engaged employees actually are.

Collecting objective data defines the culture baseline with respect to the average employee’s experience and the impact of the culture on their total health and productivity. It’s also important to be clear on why people who really like the culture do, and why others don’t.

  • “The field of people analytics is opening the door to much better data, and there are more direct measures for companies trying to better understand engagement levels. A company might begin by analyzing the following:
  • The amount of work that occurs outside of normal working hours (e.g. evenings and weekends). This is a good indicator of discretionary effort.
  • The number of network connections and time spent with people outside of immediate team or region. Building of broad networks beyond core team is a sign of high engagement.
  • The percentage of participation in ad-hoc meetings and initiatives vs. recurring meetings and processes. Participation in only highly structured events can be an indicator of low engagement.
  • Time spent collaborating directly with customers outside of normal scope of work. This and other measures like it can indicate people are highly engaged enough to help their colleagues even though they might not get credit for it.”3
  1. Shaping culture 

To have an impact, senior leaders need to mandate culture shaping as a core objective and put this measure on a corporate scorecard. Define the key metrics, such as the percentage of employee turnover in the first 12, 24 and 36 months of service. Monitor employees’ attendance and ‘presenteeism’; measure number of conflicts, bullying and harassment claims, new applicants for posted positions, employees’ trust in leadership and percentage of positions filled by internal referrals; and link culture attitude to financial/budget performance.

  • Cultural tone and attitude start from the top: Senior leaders and all managers are expected to role-model organizational values for cultures to flourish to their ideal state. The employee-manager relationship is the most important relationship to shape a culture, as this is the outworking of culture at ground level.
  • Employees’ perceptions shape culture: What senior leaders think and do matters, but in the end success is defined by what employees believe. Leaders who behave with humility, empathy, persistence, integrity and drive are best positioned to shape culture. By consistently focusing on what they say and do management has a positive impact on employees’ thinking, feelings and results.
  • Cultures are built one conversation at a time: Culture shaping promotes engaging employees in open and transparent conversation where the debate is not about right and wrong. It’s about what every employee is doing daily to honour the vision. Every employee has a role in facilitating and creating the target culture state. Culture is a living story shaped by every employee’s daily story and communications. It takes practice and monitoring to build culture.4


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