I once worked in an organisation where the culture was quite literally to stop when you dropped. The leaders set such a pace that the rest of us were either drawn into patterns of working that were either deeply unhealthy (does anyone really need to answer their emails at midnight?) or pretty devious – with some staff (not me, obviously!) trying to appear as though they were constantly busy and on the edge of effort-related exhaustion, while actually delivering as little productive work as possible and leaving the rest of us to pick up the slack. The pursuit of collecting, although rarely getting to use TOIL (time off in lieu of hours worked) was completely out of hand and the sickness absence rate sky high – as was staff turnover. Needless to say, we were all completely bought into this way of working; it was accepted by everyone, including the boss, that that’s how it was and there was little or no hope of anything changing.

In a lifetime previous to that one, I worked in an organisation where the boss would arrive having cycled a considerable distance, take a quick shower and saunter as fresh as a daisy into the office at probably nearer to 10am than our official start time of 9am – and then ask if anyone wanted a coffee. By contrast, she was incredibly productive, extremely supportive and pretty ground breaking in the work she did – and the rest of us followed. Not so much in appearing at work ‘late’ (although unless it’s absolutely imperative to be somewhere at a certain time I’m all for a bit of flexibility), although this wasn’t seen as much of a problem unless there was something that had to be done, or a particular meeting to be attended, but inasmuch as she inspired us to behave in the same way – when we got to work, we were ready to work, in a great frame of mind to work, and stayed at work as long as the task required without giving a second thought as to whether or not we went over our ‘hours’.

Organisational cultures are set by organisational leaders, although they are often reinforced by managers and other influential staff members. Organisational cultures are the set of expectations or ‘norms’ that are usually unwritten, but that define how the people in your business behave – towards each other, towards themselves and most importantly, towards your customers. Organisational cultures are set by example, not by whatever the latest policy or procedure might say about the businesses’ vision, mission and values, flexible working hours, maintaining civil relationships with your co-workers or talking to your line manager if you have a problem.

As a popular quote doing the rounds on LinkedIn in 2015 noted, “the culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate” (attributed to Gruenter and Whitaker, undated). If this should be the case, then it is imperative for business owners, MDs and managers to look closely at the behaviour that is tolerated in their business; and the example they set for staff members on a daily basis – not an easy task, since most of us don’t truly recognise our leadership roles and what they mean, and some of us adopt a ‘do what I say, not what I do’ approach which simply doesn’t improve the culture that we are unwittingly promulgating.

Organisational cultures are as diverse as the people in them; all the way from optimistic, inclusive, encouraging and respectful, through ambivalent, pessimistic, cliquey and incestuous and right across to aggressive, negative, critical and bullying. Most organisations have elements of the entire spectrum in them, yet the dominant culture will ultimately be decided by the leadership. So how do you recognise an unhealthy culture when you’re in the middle of one? Simple. If you characterise your workplace as a place of trust, honesty, respect and fairness then you are in the right ballpark. If, however, you are aware that negative behaviours go largely unnoticed in your workplace – or even worse, everyone knows about them but are too afraid to challenge the status quo – then you know you have a problem.

Often the source of the problem is the leadership of the organisation, whether all the way at the top from the owner of the business, or from paid management. Many good sources of advice for those experiencing issues at work would suggest that you must ‘talk to your line manager or HR manager’, yet quite often and especially in smaller, family businesses, there isn’t one. And what if it is the leaders of the business that are actually creating or sustaining a culture where unhealthy working practices are thriving and relationships are, how shall we say, strained? It might even be that leaders ignore or are unaware of poor relationships between staff members, or feel powerless, too busy, or too stressed to address bad employee behaviour.

Not every business can be a happy, supportive place, all of the time. Yet it makes good business sense for leaders to define and promote a culture which gets the best out of all staff members. Good organisational cultures foster great teams – recruitment and retention is better, morale and commitment is better, performance is better, absence and sickness is reduced. Good organisational cultures ensure a positive public and community image. In the same way that a staff member publicly bemoaning how much they dread going to work will negatively affect public perception of your business and how you care for people, poor organisational cultures lead to employees finding ever more creative ways to undermine your business – and ultimately you as the leader of it.

Improving organisational culture can be tricky without a change of leadership, or at least a very strong new approach that is backed by every influential individual within that organisation. If you are aware that your business has fostered a few negative cultures – perhaps the mickey taking has got out of hand and spiralled into bullying; perhaps it goes without saying that staff work extra hours without recompense or even sincere thanks, or even that new rules and regulations are imposed without consultation or agreement, then you need to consider the following: How evident is your organisational culture to a) your staff and b) your customers? And how does this affect your business?

If you would be uncomfortable with your staff members publicly describing what it really feels like to work in your business then action needs to be taken. Organisational leaders need to be mindful of the expectations we set, the example we set, the behaviour we encourage (and that which we actively discourage). To begin to tackle poor organisational culture, you may like to consider the some of the following:

  • Introducing individual staff member or team meetings to set expectations and clearly communicate responsibilities
  • Consulting on significant changes within the business including recruitment, working practices or issues that directly affect employees
  • Setting a pace that is appropriate – challenging but achievable deadlines, stretching but deliverable workloads, high but fair expectations
  • Allowing some flexibility in approach to working hours to allow staff the opportunity to care for dependents or dealt with important issues
  • Arranging training for staff members to build conflict resolution and communication skills
  • Encouraging social interaction and out of work events for staff teams
  • Considering reward and recompense structures – do you value your staff appropriately?
  • Ensuring that HR policies are in place, communicated and adhered to; including guidelines on acceptable behaviour e.g. bullying
  • Encouraging all members of the organisation to look after themselves, including accessing additional support if they feel they need it.

“A company becomes whatever a leader lets it become, not necessarily what they want it to become.  In the case of leadership, inaction can define a company just as effectively as action.”