Culture couture: making your investment in organisational change more than just a fad
The impact of toxic workplace culture is again making headline news this week. We have seen the terrible impacts of toxic cultures on individuals and organisations splashed across front pages. But a ‘culture problem’ also means big bucks, either to those who don’t address it (eg through the potential for litigation, or damage to reputation) or to those who are brought in to help change it (“change managers”).
I first began thinking about culture in the context of its highly fashionable and bankable status when my autocorrect perpetually changed ‘culture’ to ‘couture’ as I furiously typed up an organisational culture analysis for a client. A rather superficial relationship, for sure, but one that has played on my mind regardless.
Culture matters. The word ‘culture’ matters.
At Rapid Context, we spend a lot of time thinking deeply about culture and its impacts. There is little doubt that how we behave, how we talk, what we value, and how we lead, depends on the social, historical, and organisational/institutional context in which we find ourselves.
Key areas in which culture is most often discussed, are business management (most often relating to change management) and secondly, in the disciplines of anthropology (culture of tribes) and sociology (culture in society).
More recently, ‘culture’ has been frequently used as a trope to encapsulate all that is wrong within an organisation or to justify/explain historical work practices and processes. It is often described as ‘the way things are done around here’. Thinking about culture in this way is problematic because it positions ‘culture problems’ in the present; it emphasises their stickiness and renders invisible how issues may have manifested in the first place.
A little bit on theory – worth it!
Given the spotlight on culture at the moment, it’s worth considering what it actually means. Culture can be defined as the ways of thinking, the ways of acting, and the material objects that together shape a people's way of life. Non-material culture refers to the non-physical ideas that individuals have about their culture, including values, belief systems, rules, norms, morals, language, organisations, and institutions, while material culture is the physical evidence of a culture in the objects and architecture they make or have made, like words, artefacts and symbols.
The sociology of culture grew from the intersection between sociology (as shaped by early theorists like Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) with the growing discipline of anthropology, wherein researchers pioneered strategies for describing and analysing a variety of cultures around the world.
A useful way of understanding culture is the shared patterns of behaviours and interactions, cognitive constructs and understandings that are learned by socialisation. Thus, it can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by social patterns unique to the group.
To understand culture problems, toxic cultures, and the types of behaviours that occur within them, it is necessary to understand how that group identity has evolved, and the processes of socialisation through which this has occurred.
What we do
Rapid Context was founded to bridge the gap between the often-made criticism of academia as ‘esoteric’ and the ‘mile wide, inch deep’ criticism of management consulting. Robust analysis, done quickly, resulting in tangible change. Sounds simple, right?
Most often we are engaged by organisations to examine deep cultural problems, issues that are impacting productivity, capability, and/or the lived experiences and wellbeing for members of that experience. We work to understand the historical context and to unpack the causal factors of problematic cultures. Through gaining a deep understanding of how and why cultural problems have developed over time, we help organisations implement evidence-based change to address them. When it comes to engrained cultural issues, what we know for sure is that Band-Aid solutions are a waste of time.
What we have learned is that a key dependency for tangible change is the willingness of that organisation to then take on those insights and actually invest in that change. It is one thing to observe problems, and arguably, better to understand them. It’s another to then authentically seek to change them.
Samantha Crompvoets is the director of Rapid Context. Sam's expertise is in the design, implementation, analysis and reporting of strategic and academic research, evaluation and monitoring. She has specialist expertise in Defence and Organisational culture.