Culture Doesn’t Stop, Neither Should Your Investment In It

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The last major global event that the world of work faced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was the global financial crisis(GFC). Triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis in the US (if you haven’t watched The Big Short, you really should) it led to the biggest global recession since the Great Depression in the 1920s. Banks failed, countries went bankrupt and hundreds of thousands of companies followed suit.

And yet, despite it all, many under-threat organisations not only managed to stay afloat but were able to bounce back much faster than others. Post-GFC, researchers found that these resilient organisations had made the tough decisions when required while also continuing to invest in the two things that helped them to bounce back quickly and build towards success: the emotional skills of employees and the positive evolution of culture.

In a paper last year, management consulting organisation McKinsey called on leaders to learn from the mistakes that organisations had made in 2008 by not cutting their people and culture development budgets and to double-down on them instead.

Unlike the GFC, the world of work and the in-demand skills have changed significantly over the last 17 months. Employees are looking for empathy from their managers now, to a degree that they never have before. Skills such as vulnerability and compassion are no longer ‘nice to haves’ (not that they should ever have been!) they are critical in demonstrating humanity and building trust.

And cultures, so often seen as something that could be ‘controlled’ by managers in an office environment are now distributed to living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms as well as traditional workspaces! Hybrid working is now a source of competitive advantage that will have long-lasting impacts on global talent pools.

The biggest competitive advantage, however, is and always will be the culture that an organisation, department or team creates to help its people be the best of themselves and to deliver productive work.

Many people feel disconnected from their culture in ways that they never have before and these issues have shown themselves in different ways around the world.

When culture is good it’s invisible. Work gets done, targets are achieved, processes are valuable and people valued. When culture is bad, then it’s visible EVERYWHERE. Behaviours, targets, the way that teams interact, how customer issues are handled and in the wider reputation and perception of the organisation (often revealed in articles on news websites).

In these latter scenarios, managers have allowed the culture to stagnate to such an extent that it’s created uncertainty and fear, which leads to a loss of trust, connection and ultimately safety. According to one report these stagnant cultures are 10 times more likely to be affected in a crisis.

At this stage good staff start to question their futures. The irony of this situation is that it’s exactly these people that the organisation needs in order to ensure it stays in business.

Culture belongs to every employee — regardless of role, seniority or location — within an organisation. Which means that everyone has a responsibility to not only define the required cultural state, but to also make sure they do their bit to contribute to it. When this occurs, people feel connected to their colleagues, their work and are invested in the future development of culture. Thoughts of leaving subside and they seek ways to enhance engagement.

Managers, for their part, have to not only ensure that there is continual investment in cultural definition activity across the organisation, department or team, but also to role model what’s expected of everyone — behaviour-wise — in order to maintain its vibrancy and ensure the outcomes are achieved.

During times of crisis, there is often a ‘wait and see’ approach from managers who expect conditions to be perfect in order to do this work. Right now they may be waiting for lockdowns to end, everyone to be back in the office, recruitment to be completed or else work on process reviews or operating models to be completed. By the time they come to do the work on culture, it will be too late.

Technological advances mean that people and culture development can still be undertaken without people being in the same location, and it’s only the mindsets of managers that stand in the way. They continue to see investment in people and culture during times of uncertainty as counterintuitive. When times are hard then discretionary costs must be cut, or we should wait until ‘normal’ returns, right? Not according to history.

What history shows is that only through a sensible review of operational costs aligned with an unrelenting investment in people and culture can organisations ever hope to not only survive, but to be continually successful through future crises too.

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