Before I began working with organizations 16 years ago, I spent 12 years working with families, helping them develop healthier "home cultures." When I began to transition into the work of organizational development, I noticed something really interesting: families and organizations tend to function in much the same way.
Any time a group of people spend enough time together on a regular basis, certain patterns and behaviors will start to form and, just like a family, a certain culture will begin to evolve.
Everything we do at NCI stems from the understanding that, like it or not, organizations tend to function a lot like families. And, just like families, if I want to help an organization improve its culture, I need to focus on three key areas:
- Great Parenting Skills
(Organizational Equivalent: Great Management Skills)
When I was working with families it was not uncommon for parents to approach me with some version of, "We need you to come in and fix our kids." In all my years of working with families, I never solved problems by holding training seminars for the kids. Do you know who I worked with to develop solutions? That's right: the parents. If you want to help an organization improve its culture, the first thing you need to focus on is providing a specific set of management skills to those in charge. A lot of organizations miss this, asking me to "Come in and fix the employees." While I totally agree that often times the employees do need some training, this usually isn't the biggest bang for the buck and doesn't lead to the long-term, sustainable change the organization is looking for. Developing a skilled management team will.
- A Cohesive Parental Relationship
(Organizational Equivalent: A Cohesive Leadership Team)
Management teams must be cohesive in both of the ways that parenting teams need to be cohesive. First, they need to appear to get along in front of the children. Meaning this: when your management team is sniping at one another publicly, bad-mouthing each other around employees or engaging in political infighting or even outright open conflict, the entire organization suffers in terms of morale, trust, respect and employee buy-in. Just like in a family, when parents fight in front of kids, the children become anxious, angry and uncooperative. Second, managers need to be on the same page with one another and enforcing the same policies in roughly the same way. This requires management coordination and cooperation, something that doesn't happen automatically for a lot of management teams, but requires a consistent and coordinated effort by everyone involved.
- Healthy House Rules
(Organizational Equivalent: Healthy Policies & Practices)
For most families, the actual "policies and procedures" aren't written down – they tend to just play out in everyone's day-to-day life. This is also true of most organizations. What both families and organizations tend to inadvertantly do is reward bad behaviors and punish good behaviors. I worked with an organiation recently in which an employee (who was a line worker in a utility) spoke up in a safety meeting and said, "Yesterday I made this error, but caught it in time. I just want to remind everyone here to be careful about this – it could lead to an injury." Two days later he was called into HR and written up for making the error. Do you think he's ever going to admit an error again, let alone in a group safety meeting? Not a chance. Good behavior was punished. In another group, employees have learned that they can go above the head of their direct manager and get what they want from their manager's boss. In this case, bad behavior is being rewarded.
I can pretty much guarantee these "rewards" and "punishments" weren't the intent of anyone on the management team, but such courses of action simply become part of the unspoken "policies and procedures" – or culture – of the company, and are often carried out without realizing the impact it is having.
Effecting change is not usually easy, whether you're a parent or a manager (or happen to be both). But being aware of your company or organization's culture – or bringing in someone who has fresh eyes with which to see it – is the first step to bringing about effective and long-lasting change, and building a healthier and happier work family.