When a company is in turmoil, its real problems are often linked to its organizational mechanisms and dynamics. That’s when a closer look at its culture is crucial, Yardane Niessink (YN) explains.
In a recent project, Metaplan was hired to help a client reduce employee turnover, but quickly discovered that the problems were more fundamental. What made you come to that conclusion—and what did you do about it?
YN: Turnover is often a manifestation of an underlying problem. Managers know something is wrong when a very large percentage of employees leaves the organization within a short period of time. When we started working with our client about a year ago, the organization was in a bad state. We launched a study to identify and uncover the real issues and held both interviews and workshops. Many of the issues we identified through this process are “shapers of culture”; in other words, they relate to the dynamics or mechanisms in organizations that have an immense effect on mindsets, values, norms, and behavior.
With “culture” being such a broad—and often misused—term, how can we actually tackle this multilayered topic?
YN: Indeed, the problem with culture is that everything can be seen as an issue pertaining to organizational culture. The key when working on organizational culture is to identify the tangible underlying topic from which people derive perceived culture issues. We often hear the complaint, “We have a culture of disempowerment!” To find the real source of this particular problem, we could examine the organization’s structure—one crucial shaper of behavior—and find, for example, that there are too many management levels, leading to excessive bureaucracy and ineffective decision-making processes. The combination of both factors results in a lower sense of autonomy, thus decreasing the perceived importance and impact of one’s work. By changing the organizational structure, the culture of the organization will change over time, as required, and behavior will become more congruent with the norms of the majority of employees.
This inevitably leads to a kind of self-enhancing cycle, as a German CEO once said: “In the end, every company gets the employees it deserves by the culture it fosters, which is simultaneously enhanced by the employees it attracts.”
YN: It is hard to disagree with that statement. Organizational culture has become a selling point for companies. People who join a company with a great culture feel that they are part of something special, which could potentially strengthen the overall culture. Having said that, I think the quote misses one crucial aspect in the relationship between culture and attracting talent. Culture alone does not allow you to attract high-calibre people. A fantastic company culture allows you to achieve outstanding business results, and these business results will consequently allow you to attract and retain the cream of the crop.
Up to now, your project has achieved quite some impact by helping the company to overcome cultural issues. Do you have any insights that you would like to share with us?
YN: To me, this project has confirmed the notion that organizations are complex. In an ideal world, you design a culture that everyone praises and adopts. In real-life business situations, however, you can only try to shape or influence a complicated construct like organizational culture. What makes it more complicated is that business results have to be achieved while trying to influence culture. This taught me that business leaders can shape culture most effectively by being mindful of how their actions will influence their company’s culture over the long term and while they are solving urgent business issues. When changing organizational structures or processes, for instance, leaders would do well to ask themselves two questions and explore the interdependencies between both: “how will the change help reach business objectives?” and “how will the change influence values, norms, and behavior and thus shape our culture?”
is a senior consultant at Metaplan’s Princeton office. He currently works with the clinical development leadership team of a large pharmaceuticals company, which has gone through a series of attempted and successful mergers and acquisitions.