Cedar Africa Group has recently surveyed change leaders in East Africa to understand their experience in leading, supporting and implementing various digital initiatives. Most, if not all, organisations surveyed were going through digital transformation and expected the rate of digital change to increase in 2023 in a drive to competitiveness.
90% of leaders surveyed reported that their digital changes were achieving the desired results, with the rest reporting that it was too early to tell. 87% of the business leaders in the survey were of the view that digital transformation would continue to disrupt their industry and a significant amount of resources would still be needed to implement their ambitious goals.
Survey participants were asked what factors were enabling or hindering the implementation of their digital plans and 90% of the respondents stated that leadership involvement and commitment was the top enabler, followed by a clear vision. An inhibiting organisational culture was cited as a key inhibitor to successful digital change, closely followed by change saturation, and leadership involvement & commitment.
In this article, we explore the components of company culture that may restrain, prevent or inhibit the delivery of successful change – not just to digital transformation but all types of changes that organisations embark on that affect people. There is no best culture as every organization is different and different beliefs, values, behaviours and norms will influence ‘how we do things around here’.
What is culture?
Many aspects of an organisation – performance, agility, competitiveness, innovation and engagement – are influenced by its culture. Culture ‘helps people create meaning, make sense of what happens, to know their position and belong to a group, to know what to do and what not to do, how to interact, what to give attention to, what to aim for’.
Research has shown that an effective organisational culture can account for approximately 20 to 30 per cent ‘of the differential in corporate performance’ when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors. Culture has many unseen elements and may appear intangible, but the reality is that it plays an integral role in the success of the organisation – it is the unseen competitive advantage that delivers tangible results.
According to Marcel Bremer, a toxic culture has been reported to decrease productivity by 40%, whereas a positive culture can increase productivity by 20%. Toxicity in the culture could point to an ineffective and inhibiting culture that affects organisational performance, productivity and engagement.
Employees tend to complain and grumble about many things – and because we are human, some daily interactions may irritate and be frustrating. Leaders need to identify and distinguish between normal grumbling and the presence of toxic elements. An employee shared what a toxic culture feels like, “As I drive towards the office, my mood changes. It’s like this dark cloud hangs over me. I have a ball of anxiety that builds up in me. It never used to be this way.” A toxic culture causes internal distress in employees and affects their overall well-being and work satisfaction. In such a culture, employees don’t bring their best selves to work, affecting the overall results the organisation can produce.
Donald Sull, a senior lecturer at MIT, discovered five attributes of a toxic culture that negatively impact employees, their well-being, productivity and engagement. The attributes identified were disrespectful attitudes, non-inclusivity, unethical and dishonest behaviour, cutthroat and backstabbing behaviours, abuse and hostility. It takes significant mental and emotional energy to navigate such environments daily, energy and focus that should otherwise be directed towards performance and collaboration. Organisations that produce results intentionally create environments that value respect and are intentional in being diverse and inclusive, demonstrate integrity, focus on the customer and encourage innovation.
Leaders not modelling the right behaviours
Culture is shaped by daily interactions, and the values and beliefs that underpin how work is done. Leaders influence workplace interactions by how they engage and interact with their teams, how they operate and make decisions, how they execute strategy. They influence and shape the organisational culture, beliefs and values.
“Leadership & culture are two sides of the same coin” – Marcella Bremer, author and culture change consultant
Leaders have a strong responsibility to create the right environment for a strong organisational culture. They are responsible for modelling their organisation’s values through daily interactions and engagement, the way decisions are made and the way the organisation works. Inconsistent leadership actions and behaviours send mixed signals to the organisation that may hamper an organisation’s ability to build the desired culture to drive tangible results and inhibit the organisation’s effectiveness. Leaders provide clarity and direction, and inconsistency breeds a culture of mistrust. Leaders must ‘be the change’ and walk the talk and model the desired behaviours to promote a strong workplace culture.
Employees look to their leaders and managers for what is important and follow their cues. Leaders are responsible for creating environments where employees can bring their best to work. What is ignored is tolerated – the bar is high for leadership. They are responsible for addressing internal toxic practices, behaviours and norms that hinder the effectiveness of the organisation. Every leader should be concerned about culture.
Outdated company policies and procedures
Organisational policies, procedures and practices that are outdated can contribute to a negative or declining culture. An organisation seeking to innovate or drive agility needs to examine all its core business processes, policies, procedures and practices to ensure they will propel the organisation forward effectively. Policies need to reflect what the organisation seeks to achieve and should be regularly reviewed to ensure that they are not getting in the way of positive organisational change.
Generational conflict in the workplace
There are at least four generations in the workplace each with their own set of values, preferences, norms and experiences: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Each generation’s outlook is influenced by their stage in life, and the times they grew up in influence their perspective on life and what they value. Each generation has different motives and preferences on how they want to be engaged. At the root of some inhibiting cultures could be a generational mismatch, and differing perspectives on issues around technology, communication, work norms and time management lead to misunderstandings and stereotyping that create biases.
As Aristotle shared, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Leaders should be intentional in leveraging the strength of each generation. Success comes when leaders rally and unite the organisation around a common purpose.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its part” – Aristotle
Culture matters immensely. Though there is no magic formula to culture change. Identifying what is not working involves translating beliefs, values and norms into daily behaviours and actions. Understanding the current culture is the key to identifying what needs to change.