INTOUCH : How to create constructive cultures

If you want to shift the cultural behaviour of organisations into more constructive mode, get few more women into senior ranks, advises an Australian expert on organisational change management.
“The growing proportion of women in higher positions in many organisations does make real difference to the culture – and we have research evidence for that,” says Dexter Dunphy, distinguished professor at Sydney’s University of Technology and co-author of In Great Company: Unlocking the Secrets of Cultural Transformation (A Human Synergistics publication).
The book doesn’t actually dwell much on gender but does detail how five very different companies have transformed their own organisational culture. And while the companies range in size from Lion Nathan (assets A$4.3 billion, 2800 staff) to advertising company Adshel (A$100 million, 102 people), some common themes emerge.
First is the need for leadership – the CEO or senior executive team has to make the case for transformation and personally model the behaviour changes required, says Dunphy.
“It is very important that leaders are committed – prepared to undergo the experiences themselves rather than just telling other people to do it.”
“Engaging” is also vital – that includes good listening which creates constructive dialogue, developing shared vocabulary that helps inspire change and developing advanced skills for relating to others. The two other change levers are “redesigning” the interventions needed to encourage change and “reflexivity” – an ongoing process of monitoring and reality checks.
This is not easy or overnight stuff and although many companies know how to effect culture change, precious few actually do it. Nor is it freeze-frame process, notes Dunphy.
“You can’t put culture on ice – it’s in constant state of flux. You’re not making the change in static space, but intervening in an ongoing stream of change – bit like changing wings while the plane’s flying.”
Which is probably why there is still major disconnect between the sort of company culture people want to work in – characterised as supportive, constructive, creative and self-actualising, and what they actually get – which is more likely to be defensive, competitive, conventional and dependent.
Resistance frequently emerges from the very nature of business success. Those who’ve reached the top have often fought their way, particularly in strongly male-dominated organisations, says Dunphy.
“But when you get to the top that is not the sort of behaviour that makes for an effective CEO and so many of them either don’t see their own behaviour realistically or don’t understand the impact of it.”
Adshel’s CEO Steve McCarthy, for example, was shocked to discover he was the ‘cheerleader’ for some of the competitive and dysfunctional aspects of his company’s culture. The personal change he made helped power change through the company in timeframe of just 18 months – though the process tends to take longer in larger companies and can be readily derailed by changes in the senior team, says Dunphy.
He says personal and systems transformation work and evolve together.
“You can’t go too far on the personal transformative sort of stuff without changing your systems – such as performance appraisal or reward structures – otherwise these might pull the process back. If the systems aren’t going to support the personal changes, then you’d better change them quickly. You have to work both sides of the equation all the time.”
Because of the uncertainty of the change process, it works best with companies who are “prepared to step into the unknown” and be open to new learning. And there are rewards.
“The case studies have shown that moving to more constructive culture creates more open communication, improved staff motivation and effectiveness, increased initiative taking and more pleasant workplaces. The research also strongly suggests that these improvements carry across into improved [company] performance.”

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