ou can feel it in the air, that certain vibe.
That’s how real and tangible organizational culture is to Peter Bromley, partner at First Light PMV, a Toronto-based consultancy and research house specializing in leadership and culture.
“We go into certain organizations and at some of them, there’s such a sense of vibrancy, an alertness, a high level of energy. And at others, it feels close to a funeral parlour,” he said.
Tangible maybe, but does it matter? That’s one question that clients constantly ask, added Myrna Ain, also partner at First Light.
In the 15 years that they’ve been going to organizations to analyze the company culture, they’ve often been challenged to prove culture matters, she said. That’s why she and Bromley set out to measure the culture of Canada’s best employers. They wanted to determine whether these best workplaces have any culture in common.
Together with Human Synergistics, an international consultancy specializing in organizational culture, they chose 43 organizations from three lists — Canada’s Top 100 Employers, Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies and Report on Business’ 50 Best Employers in Canada. At each organization, they interviewed the CEO as well as rank-and-file workers about values and attitudes.
The best workplaces tended to exhibit a constructive culture, the researchers found. This is a culture that values people who set and accomplish their own goals. Employees are encouraged to co-operate with each other, and an emphasis is placed on the development of individuals.
The best employers “know that in order to sustain success, you’ve got to have strong vision, creativity and people on board who take a sense of ownership, and who are going to deliver on all the promises,” said Ain, describing the constructive approach.
Most organizations emphasize competition and confrontation. These are characteristics of an “aggressive” culture, according to the Human Synergistics model. The aggressive approach is marked by a tendency to point out flaws, compete with peers and strive for unrealistic objectives. Leaders in this culture believe in taking control and expect loyalty from subordinates.
But “the killer of the marketplace,” said Ain, is a passive culture, one that places value on conventionality and approval. People working within a passive culture do what they’re told, resist innovation and avoid risks.
The passive culture “is the enemy of brand, of customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. The more of it we see the more we know that company is leaving money on the table,” said Ain.
A number of companies among the best employers studied didn’t exhibit strong constructive culture. Instead, they exhibit perfectionist and oppositional traits, as well as avoidance tendencies. These employers may have ended up among best workplaces lists, but they wouldn’t likely find themselves on those lists year after year, said Bromley.
“A new project has come up, or they’ve got a new product and they’re excited. Something is going on presently that has created a sense of accomplishment. That’ll carry them for a while. But for the long term — no.”
Culture is so important that some CEOs see themselves as its keeper. Their role is to ensure that “all of the systems and processes, from human resource practices to technology, are in alignment to the commitment of building a people place as well as a task place,” said Bromley.
“It takes meticulous execution. There’s a chap who says his job isn’t only as CEO but it’s a CCO, chief culture officer.”
At Lakeside Process Controls, a Mississauga, Ont.-based engineering firm of 90 employees, CEO Greg Robertson described the company culture as one in which “individuals are very supportive of each other.
“We take a collective approach to company goals. It’s an environment for people to grow, not necessarily in terms of title and position, because we’re a relatively flat organization, but in terms of responsibility.”
That achievement- and teamwork-oriented culture is so important, that at one point Robertson had to put off filling leadership positions because he wanted to develop people from within.
“We recognized that in the early 1990s we had recruited some pretty strong candidates, and we wanted to build these individuals, but that it would be a three- to five-year process,” said Robertson. The trade-off, he added, was the company had to remain “under-resourced from a management standpoint” for the time being.
At First Calgary Savings, CEO Dave Gregory likes to call himself the head coach and cheerleader.
“It’s important to have people involved in not just the work, but what the work is all about. And culture is the cumulative motivations of a lot of individuals working for common goals as well as personal goals,” said Gregory. “To me, you can’t do your best in a place that you don’t feel good about.”
Gregory recalled a time when he was managing a clothing retail store early in his working life. “The owner of the store would come in on Friday nights and talk to me about sales, but the real reason he was there was to take money out of the till to go play poker.”
The money was rightfully his to take, said Gregory, as the store was a private company. “But the way I thought about it was it wasn’t fair to me and other people. It felt like we were employees and not people he felt good about and wanted to do something together with.”
As leader, Gregory sees his most important job is “to help influence an environment that allows for fair reward based on clear indications on what we’re all about. If the culture and the values are strong enough and understood enough, decision-making becomes quite easy for people, as dynamic as decisions may be.”
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