What Has Culture Got To Do With It?

Employment policies or workplace culture? If this were your first day on the job as the head of H.R. in a certain organisation, what would you be looking at first?

Does one define the other or are the two independent of each other? Which comes first? Usually, an established positive culture stems from a robust set of employment policies that have been consistently applied to the extent where performance and integrity became part of the collective employee DNA.

You know those work environments where people just seem to excel without any supervision? And, a counter-productive culture typically evolved out of a leadership vacuum where there was inconsistent application of policy, or in fact, where there was apparently no policy at all.

But what is culture in a work environment? If we agree that workplace culture, or corporate culture if you prefer, is defined as the underlying currents of unwritten rules, beliefs, and assumptions that guide everything from our inner workings as a team to our interactions with the outside world, then we would probably agree that workplace culture is the most powerful influence of employee behaviour. Not policies. It seems like such an absurd and hollow observation doesn’t it, especially because it appears to be so obvious.

Of course, culture directly influences behaviour. But before you exclaim ‘duh!’ realise that, the role culture plays is not so obvious in environments where results are optimised. Where people are performing to expectation, we think it is because of available resources, role clarity, effective on-boarding, talent management, and all those other H.R policies and associated programmes. It is only when behaviours that contravene all governance instruments are repeated and habitually ignored even in the face of falling performance indicators that one begins to understand what really drives organisational behaviour. The policies sit in the filing cabinets. What prevails is the culture. 

Why are we talking about culture in an HR orientated column? Well, when we talk about strategic focus and organisational performance, we depend on a supportive culture to drive us to those goals. Yes, the various policies, in this case employment policies that address every aspect of the employment relationship from recruitment to retirement are a primary factor in the success of people management. Yes, the processes followed in engaging with the human resources are important. Yes, developing various programmes and projects through which to deliver the various services is important. But, without an enabling culture, the architect of all those policies, processes and programmes labours in vain.

Who defines and drives the culture? The leadership in the organisation is vital to the creation and communication of their workplace culture. This is why the H.R agenda must be represented at the highest organisational forums. This is why, in any progressive organisation, H.R. will not be tucked into the portfolio of another department, but will instead be recognised and empowered to influence the character of the organisation at the strategic level. However, the relationship between leadership and culture is not one-sided. While leaders are the principal architects of culture, an established culture influences what kind of leadership is possible. Leaders can create, but leaders are also created or influenced by, the many different workplace cultures. It is possible that someone who impressed at the recruitment stage fails to deliver simply because of the culture he or she finds in the organisation. It is possible that someone who frustrates delivery is retained, simply because of the culture.

I know today everyone googles everything. So, google these types of cultures and see how your organisation or department best fits into each definition. There are many types and definitions of culture but these are the most recurring: person culture, market culture, adaptive culture, adhocracy culture, power culture, role culture, hierarchy culture, task culture, and clan culture.

Fortunately, organisational culture is not stagnant. Because as a team, you collectively develop a shared belief around “what works” as you interact over time, you can eventually, when those beliefs and assumptions appear to fail you, modify your culture so you stay relevant in a changing environment. Yes it is possible to change the culture but it is certainly not easy. Look at how difficult it is to change habits and behaviours as an individual. How much more for a team, and an organisation.

The progressive H.R. practitioner is positioned to advocate for, and drive this culture change as they contribute to the development of a clear strategic vision and obtain top-management commitment to the culture change in the kinds of values and behaviours that are promoted.

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