Employee Engagement Leadership Motivation Organisational Culture Teamwork Values and Behaviours

When culture is a killer

I was recently reading the reports of the inquest into the death of a Merrill Lynch intern who suffered an epileptic fit after working for 72 hours straight. The inquest returned a verdict of death from natural causes that “may have been triggered by fatigue” and has sparked debate about intern working conditions in highly competitive industries where it is not unusual to work 100 hours a week. Merrill Lynch were quoted as saying that “ambition and peer pressure meant employees worked long hours”.

While it seems that the rewards are great, and that people voluntarily do what is expected to succeed in the industry, it is worth considering the impact of culture.

Culture, put simply, is “the way we do things around here”. According to Human Synergistics (the authors of the Organisational Culture Inventory and the Organisational Effectiveness Inventory) culture, as a sum of how people are expected or implicitly required to behave, is expressed as the following styles:

Constructive Styles:

  • Pursue a standard of excellence, set challenging but realistic goals and solve problems effectively
  • Maintain personal integrity, gain enjoyment from work and produce high quality products or services
  • Be supportive of others, and open to influence when dealing with others
  • Cooperate with others, friendly, open and sensitive to the satisfaction of the work group

The results you would get with Constructive Cultures are:

  • People are satisfied with their department & like working for their organisation
  • People are motivated to do the best job possible
  • There is a lot of teamwork & cooperation with their coworkers
  • People make customers feel welcome, take time to listen to customers and deliver what they promise
  • People get a lot of repeat business and they have a reputation for excellent customer service

Passive Defensive Styles

  • Go along with others, agree with, gain the approval of and be liked by others
  • Not rock the boat, conform, follow the rules and make a good impression
  • Please those in positions of authority, do as they are told and clear decisions with supervisors
  • Wait for others to act first, shift responsibilities to others and avoid being blamed for mistakes

The results you would get with Passive/Defensive Cultures are:

  • People don’t know exactly what is expected from them
  • People admit they do only as much work as required to get by
  • People tie customers up with paperwork and “red tape”
  • The organisation lacks a reputation for superior customer service

Aggressive Defensive Styles

  • Oppose new ideas, gain status and influence by being critical and constantly challenging each other
  • Play politics to gain influence, take charge and control others and make decisions autocratically
  • Compete rather than cooperate, operate in a win lose framework and work against peers to be noticed
  • Appear competent and independent, avoid making mistakes, work long hours and keep on top of everything

The results you would get with Aggressive/Defensive Cultures are:

  • People receive different messages from different people regarding how they are supposed to act at work
  • People within the organisation compete, rather than work together
  • Work carried out by some departments seems to “interfere” with the work of other departments
  • People argue with customers and get caught up in details that are not important to the customer

So, where do you see the Merrill Lynch culture? Likely to be in the aggressive defensive styles. It seems that it was “the way we do things around here”, the norms of behaviour, that led the intern to work himself to exhaustion to get ahead.

A connection of mine recently contacted me to discuss her work situation. She expressed to me that she is “exhausted beyond what I can cope with and the company is perfectly willing to run me into the ground rather than put on extra staff even after I’ve asked”. The company response to her requests was that she was doing a brilliant job and to keep up the good work. She spoke about how she feels that she is being punished for doing a good job by being continually loaded with additional work. As she put it “we’ll very happily work you until you crack, and then we’ll replace you with someone else”.

My connection is battling in a highly aggressive defensive culture and is not thriving, or even coping. She is likely to either suffer health issues or to leave. I know the business concerned and they have a track record of burning out employees.

Aggressive defensive and passive defensive cultures and behaviours come at a cost. Putting aside the personal costs to employees, the cost to organisations is huge. In aggressive defensive cultures there is the cost of replacing people who leave, or suffer from stress related illnesses, the cost of information hoarding and internal competition, and even of intimidation, bullying and fear. In passive defensive cultures there is the productivity cost of red tape, slow (or no) decision making, mediocre performance and lack of innovation.

If your culture is less than optimal, there is some good news. Culture can be changed. It is never easy, a bit like turning a huge oil tanker, but it is doable. The key to change is twofold;

  • sustained focus by leaders to create, role model, reinforce and maintain the behaviours and mindsets that they want
  • changes to structure, systems and processes to become enablers of the desired behaviours and mindsets, not blockers

What is the culture like in your organisation? What styles do you experience?

Rosalind Cardinal is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, an Australian consultancy, specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.

Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 25 years.  Ros brings an energetic and proactive approach combined with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Her expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, organisational behaviour, employee engagement and motivation, strategic direction and management.

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