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Organisational Culture & The Power of Positive Affirmation

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In the ‘Citings’ column of The Economic Times, dated 27th August, there is a very interesting and pertinent article by James Heskett. It is titled, “Design A Better Corporate Culture”. I reproduce the entire article here as it appears in the column:

“We can learn a great deal from organisations whose strong and adaptive ownership cultures give them a powerful competitive edge. Like anything worthwhile, culture is something in which you invest. An organisation’s norms and values aren’t formed through speeches but through actions and team learning. Strong cultures have teeth. They are much more than slogans and empty promises. Some organisations choose to part ways with those who do not manage according to the values and behaviours that other employees embrace. Others accomplish the same objectives more positively.

At Baptist Health Care, for example, managers constantly reinforce the culture by recognising those whose actions exemplify its values, its behaviours, and its standards. Team successes are cause for frequent celebrations. In addition, BHC rewards individual accomplishments through such things as “WOW (Workers becoming Owners and Winners) Super Service Certificates,” appreciation cards for 90-day employees that list their contributions to their team, one-year appreciation awards, multi-year service awards, employee of the month awards, and recognition of workers as “Champions” or “Legends” for extraordinary achievements or service. Managers at all levels offer frequent informal recognition and send handwritten thank-you notes (which stand out in the age of e-mail). Those who aren’t living up to BHC’s values soon get the point.”

One of the most significant and consistent characteristics of a “CorporateTheatre” workshop is ‘Positive Affirmation’. Teams are given very challenging projects that require instant integration into new teams, very high levels of open, trusting communication, collaboration, innovation, finding and harmonising new competencies as individuals and as teams, and management of time, change, and pressure. Invariably the results are far beyond the team’s initial expectations and the expectations of the audience (client). When processing the experience, it clearly emerges that at no point did anyone in the team focus on anyone’s inadequacies, on what someone could not do. The focus was consistently on what each one could deliver. What they could not was delivered by someone else in the team. Competencies vary across individuals, but the commitment remains the same. Inevitably, every single time, every single team finds all that is needed to enjoy delivering excellence. What is of greater significance is that irrespective of what one contributed, or the role that one played, everyone feels equally valued, equally appreciated.

When the group sits together and analyses the environmental factors that enabled these possibilities, or the culture that generated the powerful and positive attitudinal behaviour, we get in touch with the importance of organisational culture. Culture always cascades from the top down, and never from the bottom up. As stated in Heskett’s article, culture does not come about from some fancy slogans put up on agency-designed wall posters or from inspirational speeches. It comes from actual behaviour patterns demonstrated by the top leadership, and from an appraisal and reward system that clearly defines and celebrates the desired behaviour, and rewards it.

I have often come across highly ego-centric managers, capable of quoting all the right slogans, saying all the right things about empowerment and ownership, whose teams are demoralised, inhibited, and highly stressed out. They ask for interventions that will ‘empower’ their teams and open up, and energize them. When such managers are told that people are naturally programmed to win and to enjoy delivering excellence and that what is needed is an honest evaluation of workplace policies, goal definitions, and leadership styles, they feel instantly threatened. Without the willingness to change their own attitudes, they expect a facilitator to do in a 1 or 2-day workshop, what they as primary stakeholders have not been able to do over years of leading their teams. It is certainly possible even in a 1-day workshop, to put teams experientially in touch with their immense possibilities to enjoy delivering unbelievable levels of excellence as individuals and as teams. However, making this a sustainable part of the work culture requires the vulnerability, and willingness on the part of the culture and policy makers to redefine some of their paradigms of ‘professionalism’ including their own personal leadership styles. While the parameters of these new paradigms and leadership styles can be explored and defined through the workshop, the willingness to change on the part of the senior leadership is critical to positive and lasting transformation. Only leaders who are secure in their own self-esteem, aware of their own competencies as well as inadequacies, convinced about and committed to their organizational vision and goals, and who have trust in the innate power and goodness of their people can really create an environment that brings out the best in themselves and in their teams.

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