Updated: Sep 21
By Bruce McLeod
Organizational culture, it was once declared, eats strategy for breakfast.
The line, often attributed to the famous management consultant Peter Druker, reflects the reality that strategy fails not because the plan is flawed – it fails because the corporate culture consumes it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about organizational cultures lately amid the turmoil and disruption of COVID-19. With office towers empty and employees scattered to their homes to work remotely, the corporate culture that dominated the work day and drove organizational results hangs in the balance.
As a leader still dealing in crisis, you might not be all that worried about that today.
But you should be.
As we collectively begin to emerge from isolation, as workplaces begin to reopen, how we as leaders confront the culture question promises to shape the future of our organizations and their post-pandemic success or failure.
Organizational cultures are vulnerable now
During COVID-19, high performers are most likely enjoying the autonomy, experimentation and flexibility of remote work and may not be all that keen to surrender that. These people embrace ambiguity as a path to innovation. They hold a growth mindset. The bottom 20 per cent are often paralyzed by ambiguity, anxious to return to the office and the old ways that came with it.
Organizational cultures are vulnerable now, and searching for a new normal. While that can be destabilizing, it also means that they are likely more pliable than at any point in their history. As a leader, you can seize this opportunity to design the culture you want – or you can stand back and watch it redefine by default and root itself stronger than ever before.
Throughout modern history, most organizations have ended up with a culture defined by default.
I once worked in an office where not a single meeting started on time. Everyone came to expect that any meeting really wouldn’t begin until 10 minutes past the hour, and so that became the default. It wasn’t that the boss decided one day that every meeting should start late – that’s just what it became.
There’s no denying that leaders set the culture, and so the boss could certainly be blamed for allowing late meetings to become part of the culture. This, of course, was just a symptom of much larger issues confronting the organization.
In the mid-1960s, American psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman emerged with a theory of group dynamics that is still widely established and relevant today. Any group, he asserted, moves through four stages of development: forming, storming, norming and performing.
As your workplace moves to a post-crisis phase – whether everyone returns to the office, whether they all work from home, or whether it is a hybrid of the two – it will quickly be forming again amid the new reality. People will initially look to ground themselves, establish goals and tasks and move forward.
Right away, 20 per cent of your organization will look to return everything to the way it was before, operating with a fixed mindset and craving a speedy return to the predictability to ease the anxiety they felt during the crisis. They will seek to win over colleagues from the 60 per cent of the workforce in the middle.
That leaves 20 per cent who are highly engaged, possess a growth mindset, and who thrived in the disruption. They will not be keen to surrender the new territory they discovered during the crisis: greater independence, delving into newfound opportunities to be creative and innovative, taking risks.
This searching, grasping and jockeying will give rise to tension, and to the storming phase.
In the storming phase, employees begin to express their opinions and vie for position as power and responsibility are allocated. Conflict and disagreement rear up. This is an anxious, stress-inducing time for some. Others will find it exhilarating.
Strong leadership is vital
Your teams will continue to thrash through this chaotic phase until norming is established. Strong leadership is vital during storming – it will make all the difference in either successfully leveraging this opportunity or squandering it.
The window of opportunity is short, but storming is where the hard work of creating a culture by design happens.
In working with clients through times like this, I’ll often ask if they see this journey as survival of the fittest, or if they would rather be their chance to guide their teams to creating a corporate culture by design.
To design an effective and high-performing culture, it is imperative that the CEO and the rest of the senior leadership team be on board and set out the essential tenets. Without that, it is an effort doomed to fail. Smart organizations also involve employees from throughout the organization, engaging them to provide ideas, insight and feedback.
That office I once worked at where every meeting started 10 minutes late? Eventually, as a senior HR leader at the organization, I was involved in a full-scale effort to remake that culture, one that transformed it into a high-performing organization.
But it was a Herculean task – much harder than defining the culture early on, and creating behaviours and practises bring it to life and then holding each other accountable.
If we are learning anything through the pandemic, it is that we must embrace uncertainty and innovation. Not only that, but that our ability to do that will define our organizations – today and into the future.
The full-scale disruption brought on by the pandemic, while turbulent and tragic, presents a golden opportunity for today’s leaders to cultivate a culture of design – to guide their teams through the storm, establish new norms (norming) and shape an organization that is performing like it never has before.
Bruce McLeod worked for more than 15 years in human resources, including as a global vice-president of human resources for a multinational company. An internationally certified leadership coach, he is Founder and President of Live Big Coaching and General Manager of Coaching Services for Vision Coaching Inc.