by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about workplace culture. In fact it’s been the leitmotif recurring in all our projects since SoolNua launched 6 months ago, back in January. The entry point for these projects may have been strategic direction or product development or digital marketing but, in all cases, Patrick and I quickly found ourselves asking questions about and around the culture of the company or the association that we were working with. We found it impossible to provide meaningful advice or compelling input to any of our customers without addressing culture and all that that implies. We wondered whether this was just us until we found Peter Drucker’s powerful statement: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
Health Care in Ireland
I was powerfully reminded once again of the truth of Drucker’s dictum when I accompanied my sister who had a nasty leg fracture to her hospital visit recently. I cannot think of any organization or system that has been subjected to as many strategic and procedural reviews as the hospital system in Ireland and yet it remains as broken as my sister’s tibia. And it’s not just the endless waiting – we arrived for an appointment at 11 and eventually saw the consultant just after 2pm. It’s the startling lack of a coherent, over-arching ethos and belief system to which everyone subscribes. Our hospitals try to “deliver” care as if it were a commodity so compassion and care – the raison d’etre of the nuns and religious who ran the health care system in Ireland for so long – have been replaced by “health and safety”. Culture has been usurped by process.
What is Culture?
But what is culture in an organization, association, small or large business? While there’s a plethora of widely available definitions I’m inclined to quote Potter Stewart, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the US. In his famous 1964 judgment on whether the Louis Malle movie The Lovers was pornographic he said:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Thus culture is something that is paradoxically visible yet intangible. You can “see” it but you can’t hold it in your hands. It’s a way of living and behaving that’s learned and internalized by watching how others live and behave. It’s passed on from person to person and cannot be captured in SLAs or SOPs or any other three letter acronym! It’s why Ritz Carlton – one of the more culture led organisations within our industry – sends its legacy management teams to open new properties and leaves them in situ until all new hires – Ladies and Gentlemen in Ritz Carlton-speak – are deemed to have absorbed the core values of the organization.
Earlier this week Melissa Van Dyke, Executive Director at the Incentive Research Foundation tweeted an article from Wharton about a recent study into workplace culture conducted by Professors Sigal Barsade and Mandy O’Neill. Entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in the Long-Term Care Setting,” the study concludes definitively that a culture of “companionate love” is not only good for morale, it’s good for business. The authors define “companionate love” with the following simple image:
… when colleagues who are together day in and day out, ask and care about each other’s work and even non-work issues. They are careful of each other’s feelings. They show compassion when things don’t go well. And they also show affection and caring — and that can be about bringing somebody a cup of coffee when you go get your own, or just listening when a co-worker needs to talk.
There’s nothing particularly striking or unusual about this and most people would probably agree that putting people first is the right way to live. Yet workplace cultures that embrace this “people first” approach, according to the Wharton study, have lower levels of absenteeism and employee burnout and “higher levels of employee engagement via greater teamwork and employee satisfaction”. The positives radiated outwards too and impacted hugely on patient care in a healthcare facility
Workplace culture was also on the agenda at last week’s Finance and Insurance Conference Planners Summer Education Forum in New Orleans. Co-Author of All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results and The Carrot Principle Chester Elton treated us to a highly entertaining, engaging and choreographed presentation on how workplace culture is, ultimately, the final differentiator. Competitors can outdo you in speed, quality and price but they cannot copy your culture.
Elton quoted a nice example of culture in action from our own industry. A group of recent graduates was partying at Hard Rock Café when “Love Shack” by the B52s came on the PA. The rhythm and groove were irresistible to one party boy and soon he was inspired to showcase his moves on the bar counter. Instead of calling security the wait staff all gathered around, whooping and hollering and adding to the celebratory atmosphere.
Elton reminded us that if we don’t create and proactively foster a culture in our organisations then a culture will create itself. When this happens its much more likely to be a toxic culture of disaffection, dissatisfaction and dissidence. And this kind of culture will certainly eat your strategy and just about anything else you’ve got.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy and digital marketing agency working in the the MICE sector.