Why It’s Time to Adopt a Systems Approach to Company Culture

The return to office is in full swing, and company culture is on every leader’s mind as they roll out new onsite amenities and wellness programs to get people excited about being back at the office. But the focus on great perks is just one example of a misguided yet common approach to culture. For years, many leaders have approached culture in a fragmented way, focusing on perks and nebulous values without integrating them into the organizational system.

We asked Melissa Daimler, Chief Learning Officer of Udemy and author of ReCulturing, how leaders can take a systems approach to culture to connect with strategy and purpose for lasting success. Here’s what she shared.

Please describe your “systems approach” to culture and what it entails.

Systems thinking means seeing both the larger picture and the interconnected parts. Companies can be misled in viewing action on their own organizational culture by thinking they are taking system-level action when they just create a list of values or roll out training programs. The best organizations have a systems perspective of culture—they know that all the parts connect and work with each other. When gaps appear, they work to close them or reconnect them to a foundational part of the system. There could be a strong purpose that is not represented in the strategy. The strategy could be strong with no real connection to how that strategy will be executed effectively. When those connections are strong, both the business and employees succeed.

I learned very early in my career that I could have a more impactful, long-term solution with different situations when I connected the organizational parts to each other. I often found myself in conversations talking about strategy—what we’re working on—and wondering why we weren’t also discussing culture and how we were working with each other. For example, when I talked with leaders about the structure of an organization, I would also refer to the strategy. When we discussed what skills and capabilities were needed for a role on a team, I made sure that we also discussed the organizational behaviors and skills necessary for that role to be successful. 

Whenever I worked with leaders, often the initial request was to do a training program or help them come up with a communication plan about something that wasn’t working across their organization. Instead, I asked a lot of questions, and without realizing it at the time, I applied systems thinking. Sometimes the solution was to do a training experience, but more often it ended up being other issues that had to do with organizational design or team dynamics. 

What’s the real reason most culture change initiatives fail?

There are three primary reasons most culture change initiatives fail:

  1. Culture is seen as a one-off change initiative led by Human Resources rather than a process that is co-created and continuous. Culture is a verb, not a noun. When we view culture as a living, continuous set of actions, we realize that every decision, every communication, every connection is either strengthening or weakening the culture. 
  2. Culture is conflated with perks or parties. We think we lost a lot of our culture when the office went away because the office included those ping pong tables and happy hours. Yet, culture never left. It is right in front of us and always has been. The issue so many companies are grappling with now is how to get their culture back. But that’s not the issue, nor has it ever been. Culture is not just what happens in an office, but mostly how work happens between people, agnostic of where they are.  
  3. We are wired to think linearly. When we isolate only one part of the system, it certainly simplifies the problem and gets us a quick solution. But that solution doesn’t last for long and likely creates a bigger problem later. Most leaders do not know how to dig into an issue and take the time to understand how the presenting problem usually connects to an underlying problem that, if addressed, would prevent the presenting and other problems from happening in the future. Culture is a system of behaviors, processes and practices that reinforce each other. When we realize that everything is connected, we can more powerfully address issues, and proactively prevent future issues.

Your book explains why an employee’s exit is as important as their entrance. What steps can we take to get it right? 

Organizations spend so much time and money on engagement surveys, manager assessments, and hiring surveys, mining for data on the employee experience. While often negatively biased by an exiting employee, their experience can still provide a rich learning opportunity for the company to better understand how to improve the employee experience overall. 

When exiting employees are treated with the same care as the ones entering, the manager, team, and company gain valuable insight into their processes and practices as well as an excellent opportunity to reinforce the culture of the company. Exiting employees can be brand ambassadors for the company once they leave—or not. And, regardless of what they did or didn’t do for the company, they deserve to be treated with respect as they leave. Do not waste this opportunity on an automated exit interview checklist that gets sent to the employee via email. Meet with employees and ask them about the manager, the team, and their cultural experience.

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Categories: Company Culture


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