This week i’m exploring why some organisational cultures fail: why some places are better to work than others. The CAIR Model of organisational culture measures four dimensions of pressure that can create internal (to the individual) and external rifts. It’s at these rifts that culture turns toxic. My point of developing this framework is that it’s rarely one person that causes culture to be poor, but rather the actions of many of us, over time, gradually eroding the solid foundations and principles on which we stand. Few people deliberately sabotage the culture, but collectively we tolerate failure.
I shared this with a friend today who recounted the story of one of his previous employers: “10,000 people, all of whom were lovely when you spoke to them alone, but cumulatively, it was a toxic culture“. Something about the community was broken
This is really at the heart of the concept behind CAIR: in every aspect of life, we make tradeoffs between our hopes, dreams and aspirations, our internal values, and the realities we face in the world. When reality challenges our preconceptions of ourselves, when the situation at hand presents us with variables that go counter to our beliefs, we have to make a judgement call. If we stay true to our personal beliefs, it may be at the cost of other dimensions (such as the need for a job and money). But if we stick out the job in a company whose actions we deplore, it tarnishes our soul and may impact on our reputation with our friends, or clients.
The misalignment of values, ethics, behaviours we face create internal pressures, which are shared to form external ones. We either conform to the culture, which may fracture our internal values, or we stay true to our own beliefs, which may create external pressures.
Does it matter? In the Social Age, yes. Because a job is not for life and because our reputation precedes us. Organisations need to attract and retain the very best talent and, once they have found it or grown it, they need to create spaces for it to be excellent in, spaces for experimentation and spaces for growth, to make mistakes. Community sits at the heart of this: it’s at the heart of social leadership for starters. But community engagement is built on trust, trust that is bedded in the culture. In an organisation where the culture is toxic, it’s very hard to build the very trust that will enable the change.
As older models of hierarchical and positional power crumble, the status quo can no longer be maintained. And in a time when brand value is owned by the community, can you afford to have a culture let you down?
Top down models of culture change don’t work, because you have to recognise the internal tension before you can address the external manifestations. Top down culture change models can easily assume that people just need to be educated as to what needs to change, but in fact we need to build a new community of change. Change needs to be magnetic.
That’s why you can’t mandate change through rules and regulation: you can create a framework for it, but not drive it. Because the pressure is internal and personal to everyone, it has be be recognised and confronted. People who clearly breach acceptable cultural boundaries are clearly wrong: bullies and bigots, but many failings in organisational culture are not this extreme. Cultures that don’t trust, that don’t innovate, that don’t thank or value people and that don’t reward or hold to account. These failings can all contravene our internal compasses of what is right or wrong, but not enough for us to leave. We tolerate the mundane or the mean because some of our internal pressures are for belonging and earning. But there is a cost, a cost to our soul and our engagement.
Building a great working culture has many benefits, the primary of which is that it’s the right thing to do. Good cultures are strong cultures, and who wouldn’t want the benefits of that? It’s all very well saying ‘we don’t operate a blame culture‘, but if all you do is point fingers behind people’s backs, it’s hollow.
There is a great deal of work being done right now to address culture in many of our largest companies: banks, pharmaceuticals, media, and anyone who thinks that their failings were just down to a malign few is mistaken. They failed systemically when the tensions overwhelmed the checks and balances. The rifts opened up deeply and suddenly, but the pressure had been there for a long time. To blame a small group of individuals (or to judge people for being greedy) is wrong: there’s nothing wrong with being greedy if you still adhere to a balance of internal and external tensions. It’s when people start making too many compromises against their internal checklists that cultures fail.