Deconstructing Organisational Culture

Understanding its component parts improves safety and performance

While there is general agreement that an organisation’s culture plays a decisive role in its failure or success, how to influence cultural factors is not as well understood. Research conducted over the past several years seems to point to six dimensions or areas that directly impact company culture. These are the keys that unlock the mystery of organisational culture and help point the way to cultural improvement.

Carlene Smith
Carlene Smith

Culture can break–and make–an organisation

Poor organisational culture is often cited as a causal factor when incidents are analyzed, from Chernobyl to the Challenger catastrophe to Deepwater Horizon. Retrospective assessments are quite discerning when it comes to pointing out the ways culture has failed, and there is little argument about its contribution to some of the worst safety outcomes in the past 40 years. This kind of consensus naturally gives rise to a shared concern across industries about the need to strengthen cultural weaknesses in order to prevent future disasters. In fact, strong organisational culture does more than inoculate companies against serious incidents, it can improve performance and productivity when companies get it right.

However, even when an organisation is doubly motivated to improve its culture–by both a drive to avoid a negative outcome and the ambition to achieve a positive one–knowing where to start and what exactly to change can be a stumbling block. Organisational culture is often described as “how things are done” in a given company, which is a deceptively simple formula. Nor does providing more detail necessarily result in a blueprint for how to proceed. Knowing that what influences the behaviours, attitudes and values of the people who make up an organisation is also what creates its culture, is only slightly more specific and marginally more helpful.

Building blocks of organisational culture

In order to develop a strategy around organisational culture that makes a measurable difference in safety and other outcomes, a more precise understanding of the ingredients that go into it is essential. At DEKRA Organisational Reliability, we reviewed the research into organisational culture and identified the 6 dimensions that have the biggest impact:

Authentic leadership refers not only to leaders who model in both word and deed the behaviours they expect to see in their employees, but also to those leaders’ sincere commitment to the company’s core values. It is hard to be a believable role model from behind a desk, so it is leaders who build face to face relationships with the workforce, conducting safety interventions and asking the right questions, who are perceived as authentic and worth emulating.

Control of Work is the sum of all systems, processes and procedures put in place both to prevent unsafe situations and to promote desirable practices. Just as authentic leaders reinforce healthy values through their words and actions, they also help ensure that these “controls” reflect what the company values and align with what they want to achieve.

Learning and Development encompasses not only individual competencies and professional skill sets or certifications, but also organisational learning. The latter specifically targets cultural factors and interpersonal skills such as giving effective feedback, cultivating trust and the importance of integrity.

Communication is often and justifiably referenced in relation to organisational culture. Specifically, what is (and is not) communicated and how it is conveyed matters, as does the flow of information. Does it move efficiently in two directions, both up and down an organisation’s hierarchy?

Role of the HSE cannot be ignored when establishing a culture that values safety, since safety is literally part of its title. Moreover, health, safety and environmental concerns are by nature interdepartmental, making HSE a valuable partner in representing a company’s cultural values at all levels and in all subsections.

Workforce Engagement is crucial, since culture ultimately resides in individuals’ actions and attitudes. When the other dimensions are activated and harmonised, workforce engagement is facilitated. Nonetheless, an active effort should be made to win workers’ willing compliance with safety initiatives, HSE procedures, learning and development programs, etc. Taking their engagement for granted is a mistake.

Letting care guide culture

There is one more ingredient we at DEKRA OR have discovered makes a substantial difference in questions of organisational culture: care. When human beings care about something, they express their concern and interest through what they say and do. In an industrial setting, care for people, the plant and processes means letting people know they are important by expressing concern verbally or through actions and programs that communicate that sentiment; it means taking good care of the work environment, machinery, devices, protective equipment, etc. out of a sense of respect for the workplace and a desire to optimise performance; it means following protocols and adhering to established procedures in the knowledge that they are designed to streamline productivity or guarantee safety.

Organisational culture, diagnosed

Honing or overhauling an organisation’s culture starts with knowing where and how to make improvements. If NASA had had the tools to diagnose their cultural problems before the Challenger launched, they may have discovered issues with the flow of communication-uncertainties and concerns voiced among the workforce that never reached leadership, for example. And NASA leadership, in its turn, may have been made to understand that a commanding, “do as I say” style does not always deliver the desired results.

Today, we have these diagnostic tools, developed with the help of scientific research and designed to target the most significant cultural indicators. At DEKRA OR, it’s our Culture of Care diagnostic, and it can reveal not only where a company stands in terms of organisational culture, but also what can be done–where to start and what to do.

Author: Carlene Smith

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