Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development
The topic of workplace culture often comes up when people are unhappy, or significant problems have occurred. Leaders get blamed, and we wish for the proverbial magic wand that will transform a troubled culture into a good one. There is no doubt that leaders have a vital role in setting the tone, practices, and behaviors that shape a culture. According to a 2019 research from the Society of Human Resource Management, “58 percent of employees who quit a job due to workplace culture say that their managers are the main reason they ultimately left. And the cost of this turnover? $223 billion in the past five years” (Mirza, 2019). Leaders can be underequipped to step into that responsibility in a meaningful, conscious way, and as a result, may also look up and down the chain for someone to blame. When no one takes responsibility for the culture, the accepted norms of behavior in an organization contribute to its deterioration. When all take responsibility and work in concert with informed leaders, transformation is within reach.
What can we do to help ensure MSU develops and maintains a culture that lives up to the University’s ideals and best serves its mission? The NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) points to three key variables that make all the difference:
- Priorities. Leaders may have different priorities for their area of oversight, but what are the priorities for our institution at large, and how do the two intersect? We can start by looking at our mission statement, identified values, and strategic plan (all of which are currently being evaluated). These foundational priorities are particularly important in times of significant change when we need to be flexible and adaptive to a situation that seems to shift by the minute. It is also essential to act rather than waiting to see what priorities are determined by others. Take advantage of opportunities to have influence where you can. For example:
- Use this link to let the Strategic Planning Steering Committee know what you think is important as MSU moves forward.
- Let the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Steering Committee know what your priorities are by clicking here.
- Provide input to the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Committee here.
- Habits. Our ideals and beliefs are important, but actual behaviors are what change a culture. We must ask ourselves, what habits do we need to embody to reinforce our stated values and priorities? For example, if we say that having a safe, inclusive workplace is a priority, what actions do we consistently take to make that happen? Habits related to this topic might include:
- Speaking up to remind someone to follow safety guidelines and/or thanking someone who reminds you to do so
- Directly addressing the use of stereotypes and derogatory language
- Inviting those who are being ignored to share their perspective
- Seeking out diverse opinions to broaden one’s own perspective
- Saying “thank you” and honestly considering the constructive feedback someone provides you
- Expressing empathy to those who share a painful experience
- Demonstrating civil, respectful behavior to all, regardless of level, title, or perspective
In some cases, moving something from being an idea or belief to an actionable habit takes practice and skill-building. In fact, the habit of being a continual learner can magnify the other habits you identify as priorities. Training and other learning activities can support the creation of new practices. NLI has found that “scaling learning by giving people managers small bites of compelling content to share with their teams a few minutes a week” has resulted in significant behavior change (Rock, 2019). To try this approach, check out Team Talks in elevateU, which provides a discussion guide (under the “custom tab”) and video for key topic areas.
- Systems. Systems are basically how the work of the organization gets done. They can be formal, like policies or defined processes, or informal, “it’s just ‘how we do things around here’”. If systems don’t change with the desired culture, they will become barriers to creating the habits that further our priorities. For example:
- If we say that having a diverse workforce is a priority yet continue with the same recruiting and hiring practices we’ve used in the past, nothing is likely to change.
- If we say that we want a culture in which speaking up about problematic situations is the norm, but we don’t hold offenders at all levels accountable, or reporters are retaliated against, people will not speak up.
- If we say strong leadership is the key to a healthy culture, but we don’t have a systemic method to set and measure expectations or strategically develop our leaders, we are leaving it to chance.
We need to analyze our systems to see if they reinforce our stated values and make changes as required (Weller, 2019).
Perhaps a good starting point is striving to understand the current culture. While not necessarily easy, given how decentralized MSU is with a variety of subcultures, we do have information that provides direction, such as the 2019 KnowMore@MSU Campus Climate Survey results. We can also be thoughtful about our own experiences and observations. The article, 5 Simple Ways to Assess Company Culture suggests reflecting on the following questions:
- What didn’t go so well last year?
- Were there any cringe-worthy moments?
- What is the one thing your organization was worst at last year?
- What did we learn from our mistakes?
- What lessons can our organization leverage?
- What could our organization do differently over the next 12 months?
- What break-through moments did we experience last year?
- What is holding our organization back?
- What can each of us do to be more helpful to the team?
The mission, values, and priorities established organization-wide must be informed by and reflected throughout the organization’s breadth (Thiefels, 2018). Individual leaders at all levels then have a responsibility to connect those dots and make it real for all in the important work they do and interactions they have. All of us, regardless of role, have a responsibility to each other and to making the organization the best it can be. Together We Will.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” -Barack Obama
Murza, B. (2019, September 25). Toxic Workplace Cultures Hurt Workers and Company Profits. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/toxic-workplace-culture-report.aspx
Rock, D. (2019, May 24). The Fastest Way To Change A Culture. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrock/2019/05/24/fastest-way-to-change-culture/#4f0c85f23d50
Thiefels, J. (2018, April 24). 5 Simple Ways to Assess Company Culture. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from https://www.achievers.com/blog/5-simple-ways-assess-company-culture/
Weller, C. (2019, June 20). The 3 Key Components of Behavior Change. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from https://neuroleadership.com/your-brain-at-work/priorities-habits-systems-behavior-change