Posted on: March 9, 2011 Posted by: Diane Swarts Comments: 0

Organisations should measure corporate culture in terms of elements of Defensive and Constructive impulses and behavior, and reward constructive initiative.

There are two main types of culture; Defensive and Constructive, says Michael J O’Brien, president of Star Performance Group. Constructive cultures reward proactive behaviors that foster innovation, performance, personal responsibility and accountability.

Defensive cultures reward inactive or reactive behaviors that focus on maintaining the status quo, blaming others for creating problems, and looking good on the surface. This impulse is all too human, and comes with corporate territory.

All organisations have some of each set of behaviors in their culture, but what differentiates companies is which set of behaviors is dominant. Culture survey models should measure companies on a scale between Defensive and Constructive.

Research has shown that only about one third of corporate cultures are constructive, while two thirds are primarily defensive. A tendency for organisations to be more defensive than constructive is a natural path that organisations follow in their growth and development.

Corporate culture cycle

Most organisations start out constructive, or with a lot of money, and to survive they develop a product or service that establishes them with a dominant market position.

Over time their initial success leads to more success and they lose the urgency to create and develop new products to survive and they start to develop a sense of needing to “protect the core” and maintain this success.

Management gets into a comfort zone convinced by their success in the past, that their brilliance will carry them forward.

As more and more effort goes to protecting the current business, the management develops arrogance – and they start to pay attention only to information that reinforces their view of their brilliance, and ignore and rationalise information that would suggest that their core business is deteriorating and that they need to reinvent themselves.

To prevent dissidence, the focus shifts internal, attempting to maximise profitability on the core product or service, oblivious to the realities of the market. True performance of the organisation continues to deteriorate until one day they wake up in a crisis and have no idea how they got there.

Measure volatility as cultural product

Research has shown that the more defensive the culture of the organisation, the more volatile its financial performance, through cycles of developing anew, and then protecting the core until it is gone, and then in a panic develop anew.

If you have been frustrated trying to implement new initiatives, perhaps it isn’t the initiative that has been the problem, but that unseen obstructionist, culture.

Culture likes comfort

One of the primary purposes of corporate culture is to maintain a system, to keep things the way they are. Culture could be working against growth and development.

Humans are adaptable and perceptive. When we find ourselves in a new situation, out of our comfort zone, our awareness heightens, we start to recognise how others are acting and we adapt their behavior to fit in.

Operating at this heightened awareness takes a lot of energy, so we start to take on the behaviors of those around us, by indoctrination, until we get into a new comfort zone.

In organisations, behaviors are adopted to get ahead. These behaviors may or may not be what we would choose to do, but they are ‘the way things are done here’. Culture surveys should measure behavior against a scale of Defrensive versus Constructive.

Leaders promote constructive culture

Companies that continually promote a more constructive culture do this through effective leadership, leadership that recognises how important it is to keep the organisation evergreen.

These organisations are externally focused, balance the concerns of all stakeholder groups, keep politics out and ensure that communication flows freely ensuring candid discussions and decision making.

Leaders achieve this by being future focused, anchoring decisions to a clear vision, strategy and expectation. Vision and values are not ‘posters’ in these organisations, but true operational tools.

• Michael J O’Brien is president of Star Performance Group.


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