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Improving Organisation Culture in Social Sector Organisations

An organisation’s culture is its core personality, the essence of how its people do things in the course of work and often one among the most significant tools that leaders have at their disposal in driving their organization towards success.

Organisations across the globe have recognized the importance of nurturing a positive and supportive culture. According to CEB (now Gartner), for the first time ever, in 2017, Changing Organisation Culture emerged among top-five priorities for HR Heads across the globe. In the NGO & non-profit sector, it was among the top three priority areas. That’s news in the right direction, right ?, Yes, but before we get all excited and gear up to work towards creating a new environment, Let’s have a look at this vexing data: The same research report shows that 78% of the 305 organisations surveyed have undertaken some form of change initiatives in the past three years, however only 34% were clear success and for others the desired outcome was still elusive.

And what we understand is that “Competing Priorities” often emerge as a biggest barrier on working towards the desired Organisation Culture. In the development sector, addressing culture takes a backseat primarily due to the leadership’s focus on some central matters like fund raising, resource mobilisation, program and stakeholder management. Adding to the complexity, it is not an easy task too. But think about it! The dependence of Social Sector organisations on Highly purpose-driven Individuals to take its mission forward is all the more reason for creating an environment where employees are engaged and inspired. Culture helps orient its employees to “reality” in ways that provide a basis for alignment of purpose and shared action.

“Organisation culture is best developed intentionally and collectively as against accidentally and independently, states Kalyani –Head HR, DRF.

An Approach to Changing Organisation Culture: There is no dearth of research on how aligning organisation culture with strategic objectives of the organisation can be a definite enabler of success. Culture guides organisations activities through a shared set of beliefs and group norms; hence it is crucial for an organisation to express goals by developing a culture aligned to organisations values. Establishing the desired organisation culture involves translating strategic objectives into simple and specific behaviors that everyone across the organisation can practice. It may sound complicated but it is quite simple. For example, an organisation focused on the strategy of “innovation” may want its employees to “see failure as a learning experience” or An organisation that looks forward to reap the advantages of a “diverse workforce” may want its employees and itself to “source ideas and perspectives from all relevant stakeholders”

Every organization hence has its own distinct culture that is fundamental to the identity and image of the organization. Bringing about a change in the culture may become necessary when an organisation is undergoing significant changes. It may also become necessary when the organisation is trying to address a critical matter that may require different behaviors from those exhibited in the past. Changing the culture present today is not easy. We are talking about influencing the behaviors of hundreds of people! and forcing a specific type of culture may actually lead to risking a backlash.

The key to a successful cultural change and institutionalization of desired behaviors lies in the involvement of employees in co-defining and building the culture.

Here is a Four-step process to institutionalize the desired organisation culture:

Step 1: Co-defining the Culture: Engaging and involving people through dialogue and self-reflection and helping them appreciate what works and what doesn’t is a great way to develop collective awareness among employees on the need for change. The idea is to provide employees with sufficient information to properly assess the options and let them consciously choose certain behaviors. It is important that employees can influence the process and understand the final choices as in this way they also become intrinsically convinced by arguments that support change and feel more positive towards the desired behavior. It is suggested that rather than trying to bring about a blanket cultural change, it is good to focus on a few critical behaviors that can have a significant desired impact on the organisation.

The DRF way.
At DRF, we identified Critical Thinking, Appreciating Diversity and Taking Charge of Own Development as key employee behaviors that could support our strategy of Collective Problem Solving.  To drive the point around Critical thinking, we used platforms like Town Hall meetings and Facebook @Workplace to conduct activities that challenged one’s thinking and examined their conclusions, eventually making them aware of the inherent biases and imperfections in their thinking. As a result, employees became much more convinced about the importance of improving their quality of thinking while solving problems and making decisions.

Step 2: Collectively Committing to Change

Once people are aware of the problem or the need for change, they have to fully commit to change the status quo. Positive reinforcement as against a negative reinforcement has always proven to be effective in an organisational setting. Commitment to change best comes from emotional approaches to influencing behavior and emphasizing the positive implications for the employee and the organization. When Cultural Change can be inspired, why should it be enforced?

The DRF way,
Building a Core Workplace Behaviour Statement – a sharp statement of promise – vow to oneself, has contributed a great deal in establishing an emotional connection between employees and the behavior itself. When employees are involved in building the statement they need to practice, their commitment levels increase manifold.
All our Workplace Behaviour Statements have been framed with inputs from employees across the organisation.

Step 3: Measuring Progress: Defining what success looks like and measuring progress against what we aspire to be is a definite way to know where we stand against what we desired and whether what we are doing is helping in any way? One among the different ways to measure progress in this case is by conducting periodic anonymous employee polls – asking employees on whether they are actively making efforts to internalise the behaviours. When there is significant cultural change, it also begins to show in the impact that the organisation is able to create.

Step 4: Institutionalizing the behaviours: Simply measuring progress is however not enough. Institutionalizing behaviours also involves continuously making efforts to help employees internalise the desired behaviours and as said above, what better than positive reinforcement in this direction. Following could be different ways to do so,

  • Encouraging early adopters to share stories on how the behaviors helped them grow personally or professionally.
  • Rewarding and Recognizing employees who demonstrate the desired behaviors.
  • Nudging employees.
  • Building the skills needed through Training or encouraging employees to take up relevant online courses
  • Linking the practice of these behaviors with the Performance Management System

The Global Human Capital Trends survey 2016 by Deloitte shows only 19 % of the respondents expressed the belief that they have the ‘right culture’ in their workplace. If you are among those working towards building the ‘right culture’ at your workplace, here’s a word of caution, ensure you put in specific, concrete and persistent measures in this direction. It has worked for us and we hope will work for you as well!

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