Developing organisational culture has never been an easy task for any leader - least of all in today’s world. The uncertainty, chaos, and complexity of the intense period of the global pandemic meant that organisations had to quickly assess, adapt, and innovate.
Conversationalists included Colin J. Browne (Organisational culture and employee engagement expert at Happy Sandpit), Shamim Bodhanya (Director at the Leadership Dialogue) and Gia Whitehead (Chairperson and Co-founder of TSIBA Business School). They discussed how leaders can innovate to create and sustain a healthy organisational culture.
Why is it important to innovate around organisational culture?
“Culture doesn’t live in the abstract,” outlined Dr. Mwagiru. “It is something that is lived out in practice and experience – whether in an online or physical space. It’s about interaction among communities.” Organisational culture is a dynamic concept. It is the organic composition of multiple intersecting factors and influences that are ever-changing.
As a leader, it is crucial to have a sense of flexibility and be willing to learn and unlearn – while fostering a sense of belonging, connection, and trust within your organisation. “You can’t design organisational culture. Culture is very complex and emerges over a long period of time through engagement and socio-historical processes. Organisational culture is a mix of design and emergence. The design side is less in our control as leaders than we think. The emergent processes are actually what drive organisational culture,” shared Shamim.
“The interpenetration of diverse views, backgrounds, experiences, and opinions ultimately leads to the development of an organisation’s culture,” he continued. “In essence, it is this diversity that drives culture. If we were all the same, there’s not much significance for culture. Culture is a dynamic, organic process through all of these interactions that we have on a day-to-day basis with each other.” What is essential is to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion, creating space to prompt everyone to contribute, while highlighting what is important to them in the way that they work.
How can organisational culture develop?
“Organisational culture requires a conscious and deliberate journey,” said Gia. “Purpose, values, and aligned leadership are key, and the employee experience is enforced by these. With the pandemic, there was a catapult of employees into the hybrid way of working. Since then, flexible working spaces have become key – both as an attractor and a detractor. To build that into a culture is more complex. What has evolved with the onset of the pandemic is culture-building in a hybrid way.”
“People returned from the pandemic fatigued, tired, with spikes in depression, anxiety, and loneliness. The focus, therefore, needs to be human-centered, transparent, and open. There needs to be an element of trust, as many people have proven that they can work elsewhere. We can anchor into our purpose, create well-being, and help people to feel included,” Gia emphasised.
This means that leaders need to commit to the co-creational development of organisational culture with their staff. Colin emphasised the importance of the role of leadership in opening up channels that establish trust and good communication towards this. “More than talking, as leaders, we need to listen. We’re going to have conversations that we never really had before. Those are really important now. Evoking a space in which we make it feel great to be around our colleagues again – that’s something that we can build on.”
Spaces for deliberate communication in a safe and inclusive manner enhance organisational culture. As Shamim outlined, for those organisations that have transitioned to a completely remote way of working, these are almost as vital as physical office spaces once were. “We need to shift our investment from physical infrastructure to social infrastructure so that our people can still be part of vibrant organisational cultures they feel they really have a place in.”
The challenges that are faced:
“We tend to know each other in our roles, but we don’t know each other as full human beings,” Shamim continued. “Developing our organisational culture within the community of our team is about the human-to-human connection. It’s about the sense of care that we bring to each other, which surpasses our work.” We lost touch with each other physically, and, inevitably, this has changed how we relate to one another and to our organisations.
Indeed, Colin reminded us that we need to observe how poorly the shift to remote work took place. “Companies constantly say that they had their best year ever in 2020. But that ‘best year ever’ came at the hands and heads of people who put in 17-hour days. It’s not sustainable. By and large, this is because leaders and managers are not equipped to manage this way, they haven't been trained in this methodology — it’s a whole different game. It hasn’t happened before. We need to get used to listening to what our people have to say, and allowing our people to experiment, innovate, and try new and creative solutions.”
And how do we face these challenges?
“The bravery with which leaders are willing to approach life alters everything,” affirmed Colin. As leaders, we need to acknowledge that there are no easy answers. We need to ensure that our thinking is appropriately positioned for us to build not only our organisational culture, but also our teams and ourselves.
The Leadership Foresight Webinar Series is presented by USB Executive Development in collaboration with the Stellenbosch Business School Alumni Association. This free, live series takes place over the course of three events, facilitated by heavy-weight subject matter experts and consultants, with contributions from panels of subject matter experts and industry leaders. Guests from across the African continent and abroad speak about the past, present, and future focus of leadership in Africa.
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Don't miss the next event in the series, “We're all in this TOGETHER”, facilitated by Dr Natasha Winkler-Titus, in which she and industry experts will unpack the importance of embracing the UBUNTU philosophy in businesses, and how leaders can make this shift. Register here for this event taking place on 27 October 2022.