One of the sizeable conundrums of the COVID-19 era for businesses large and small is that of the sustainability of culture. Can it continue to exist when we’re all operating remotely? How much of our culture is linked to the fabled water cooler? How much can we, or even should we, rely on individuals to demonstrate personal leadership, and what is the optimum way to use technology?

To put it mildly, it’s been a little messy all round.

That we have largely survived, seems to me to be down to two conflicting realities: 

(1) People-oriented companies were able to rely on previously-built relationships and structures to hold the line and adapt in constructive ways.

(2) Companies that were not, saw the inefficient regimes masquerading as culture they had enforced over years, wither and die.

In equal amounts, these things seem to me, to be good. 

Let’s leave (1) on the table. We all get that. It’s too obvious and feel-good to warrant exploration at this stage.

The idea underpinning (2) however is juicy and raw and worth a long, hard look. 

Because here’s the thing: I don’t share the generic view that the erosion of culture is bad. Sometimes it’s plainly good, and sometimes it’s a blessing. 

It’s incredibly brave for any company to elect to take a sharp reset in the face of a culture problem, like British Airways in ’82, IBM in ‘93, Apple in ’97 and Mercedes Benz ’07, but it’s also usually the only option. It’s a shot of heavy medicine into a very sick body.

But when the body is only slow and lethargic, like such an impressively large number of companies, the usual response is to feed it the odd vitamin in the form of a survey or a town hall, or perhaps the establishment of a culture committee with no specific mandate, and to push on as normal.

If this is a hard thing to read, trust me when I say it’s a hard thing to write.

If COVID-19 and the WWAH dynamic have caused you stomach ulcers because of the pressure they have placed on your culture, you very likely didn’t have anything of any substance in the first place.

In that instance, you’re in a better place now. You’ve had your hopes and expectations tested and like with any buggy batch of code, the overnight reports have shown you holes big enough to drive a truck through. 

As leaders, you might have to accept you’re the last ones to realise they’re there. Consider it an opportunity for enlightenment. 

But now do something about it. Actually, three things:

(1) Dig deep and dare to be introspective in your quest to discover your orgsanisation’s Core Values. Figure out who you are, what you care about, what you are willing to suffer pain for. 

(2) Rewrite (or (shudder) take your first constructive swing at) a solid succession plan that places culture and an obsession with growing and developing people as the first priorities for advancement.

(3) Run as many behaviour change processes and activities as they can stomach (and then add some more just to drive the point home), with your senior leadership team until they fully embrace that they’re running an organisation of humans not a deck of spreadsheets.

This has been a truly jarring 20+ months. But for many, it’s been a moment of catharsis. Use it.

Image by Simon English / Unsplash

Categories: Culture Shot

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colinjbrowne