4.3 Culture and values

There has been little mention of culture in this programme for several reasons. Firstly, it’s very hard to define though it’s often used as shorthand for a very wide range of desirable and undesirable behaviours that are hard to explain or influence. Academics are deeply divided about its nature and, in our view, have added very little clarity to the discussion. Differing perspectives emphasise the values and behaviours demonstrated by senior team members on the one hand, or take more of a ‘bottom up’ perspective on the other.

Culture is important – we all know the value of open, trust-based relationships when we experience them – but attempts at ‘culture change’ can often be pointless. Culture is best understood as the cumulative outcome of all the factors that shape our working lives. This can include basic employment practices that either embody or undermine equality, equitable remuneration and security. Equally it reflects all the workplace practices described in the four Elements, and the values that underpin them. The design of these practices sends you very clear messages about whether you’re trusted, respected and treated as a whole person by your employer.

In short, positive organisational cultures are the product of evidence-based workplace practices associated with high performance and well-being, and grounded in values of openness, trust and respect. It is in this sense that Drucker’s famous “culture eats strategy for breakfast” quote becomes meaningful. But we also need to examine the role and impact of values themselves.

Many organisations place great store by their values. Words such as:

  • Integrity
  • Communication
  • Respect
  • Excellence

can be found in the lobbies of many corporate headquarters. But what do they mean in practice? We know that managers and employees alike are often deeply sceptical about ‘motherhood and apple pie’ words and slogans that seem to appear from nowhere, in whose formulation they have had no involvement, and which have little relationship to their actual experience of the workplace.

Yet values can also lead to transformation. When Skanska acquired various UK-Based construction firms at the beginning of the current century it inherited many undesirable practices, at odds with the Swedish parent company’s open and transparent culture and values.

Skanska made a clear commitment to break with the past. CEO Mike Putnam explained that:

Everybody in the UK talks about it but in the Skanska Group it is at a completely different level. When you have your values, you need to be visibly seen to follow them. The behaviour that backs up that leadership is absolutely crucial.

“Respect” is a word that recurs frequently in discussions with managers, union representatives and frontline staff alike. It is reflected in the company’s core values which aspire to zero accidents, zero environmental incidents, zero tolerance of bribery and corruption, and zero defects. Respect forms part of a culture which, it is intended will “penetrate the company’s DNA”, releasing employee voice at every level of the business. While hierarchical structures remain in the business, hierarchical management behaviour is increasingly out of place.

Yet such culture change was not an overnight journey. Change in Skanska was the result of a series of incremental initiatives that build on each other to create a sustainable momentum of change, reinforcing the company’s values through multiple channels and always exemplified by senior-level behaviours. For example, at least once a quarter – and often monthly – all management team meetings will spend half an hour exploring an ethical dilemma relevant to the business, either hypothetical or real. This reinforces the message to all managers that Skanska is a values-driven organisation.

Read more about Skanska.

A great starting point is to ask everyone in the organisation what matters to them at work., and how often they experience it positively – or not. As in Skanska, values derived from these conversations need to be followed by consistent and sometimes transformational measures, led by the senior team, to make them a reality in day-to-day working life.

Companies such as Google and Netflix use culture handbooks and presentations to reinforce the message that they are striving to be unlike traditional, hierarchical and rule-bound companies Entrepreneurial behaviour, ‘asking for forgiveness rather than permission’ and a responsibility to challenge are reinforced continually.

Download culture and values presentations from Google and Netflix.

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Forum topic: ‘Culture change’ is often discussed but hard to achieve. What has worked well in your experience?

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