I’ve been working inside East African companies for many years. Using their brand promises to align staff behaviour. Often working to tighten up that brand promise first. And I’m beginning to discern some trends that will be of interest to anyone who is interested in making company culture more positive and productive.
They are trends in human behaviour, and they emerge most strongly in enterprises where the culture is not as robust as the CEO would hope. In businesses where the Board and management team may well have signed off on a mission, vision and values set. Where the website may have been designed to reflect this. Where there is a corporate identity discipline in place. Even where the advertising has been redirected to make reasonable promises to customers. In short, where the top management think they have done enough to set a direction. But the majority of the workforce is either unaware or not engaged.
When you are in top management, and even more so when you are in a leadership position, it is easy to think everyone understands what the company is trying to achieve. Lord knows it takes enough time to develop a business plan, then critique and agree of the figures that will drive it. It takes even more time to allocate tasks and priorities, and to set objectives for managers. I have been inside enterprises where the KPI (Key Performance Indicator) exercise takes so long that before you know it you have to reboot the process for the next financial year. Time is an illusion, as the great Douglas Adams once said.
All of the above activities take time, and are usually conducted by a small team working under great pressure. Often that team is so relieved to have finished, that they ignore the fact that 90% of the workforce is ‘unaware.’ Unaware of the promise the brand is making to the market. Unaware of expected behaviour. Unaware of the importance of their own role in delivering that promise in their daily customer interactions.
I journey deep inside companies. Three, four, five levels below top management. Sometimes I feel like I am going down in a lift inside a gold mine. And you’d be surprised what I discover down there.
In companies where cultural parameters are not promulgated, staff members have to get on with life to the best of their own ability. They try to learn from and advise colleagues who work in proximity to them. But then they come up against issues that they find hard to understand. Why Mr X has been promoted over Miss Y. Why department B got a bonus and department F didn’t. Why branch offices are closed, to be replaced by outsourced dealers. Why the company’s advertising features people singing. Why there is going to be a restructuring exercise. Why commercial activities are expanding to Sudan.
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In the absence of a corporate culture and context, people revert to some fairly traditional ways of rationalising the inexplicable.
- There is a widespread belief that every organization contains an active espionage network. Not of the Martini and Walther PPK calibre, but effective nonetheless. The closest parallel I can think of in modern times is the Stasi of East Germany, which infiltrated every level of society and produced widespread anxiety. Company spies know who is doing who, and who is doing what. And staff members really believe that they influence what happens.
- It is rarely spoken about, but the use of sexual favours or the request for the same – in order to influence hiring, promotion and insurance against restructuring – is more prevalent than we would all hope.
- If all else fails you might be surprised to hear how readily your staff members fall back on a belief that witchcraft is working its wicked way inside your business. I have stood, open mouthed, in large-scale workshops and other fora, while people have instructed me in detail on the Black Arts.
It’s a sobering thought, is it not? That within our new corporate reality of shiny offices, and compliance, and brand identity, and Stock Exchange approval there lurks something darker and deeper. The good news is that it can be addressed. Read this column regularly to find out how.
Get more from Chris Harrison on his blog at Companycultures