Culture is 'how' we do things


In the past year, several epic failures of conduct and culture have dominated the headlines across Australia and New Zealand.

People in the financial, legal and political sectors have suffered a workplace meltdown of some description that points to a systemic weakness in workplace culture, where leadership is almost always called into question.

In an effort to clean house, the New Zealand Law Society recently appointed Tania Epati as its youngest ever president and fourth woman in the role since 1897. The new boss has her work cut out for her, with the outgoing president – another woman – describing the profession’s sexual misconduct problems as a “cultural crisis”. 

In late May, the Society released a survey which found one in five lawyers had been sexually harassed in their workplace. The same results showed about one in three female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their career.

In Australia, the financial services sector has also been found guilty of a crisis of conduct as succinctly dissected by SenateSHJ reputation specialist and partner Craig Badings.

The fallout from these events is still being processed, but the behaviours exhibited leave the affected organisations with plummeting trust and confidence and a dent in their cultures.

Many organisations struggle to define their culture and there are differing points of view about how cultures are built; is it top down or bottom up?

In simple terms, culture is about acceptable and desirable behaviours and how we encourage them. A workplace that’s soft on sexual harassment is effectively condoning that behaviour, despite the damage it might cause. A workplace that’s comfortable with charging fees to dead people is condoning a culture of greed and dishonesty.

The answer to changing such cultures starts with identifying the problems. This is happening in several sectors right now.

Another key step is to return to the fundamental question of purpose, i.e. why does our organisation exist?

Next will be codifying the purpose and expected behaviours through company values, codes of conduct and written policies.

Leaders have a clear role to play in all of this, but enlightened organisation will involve staff and customers too.

Regular checks on staff engagement and customer satisfaction provides important feedback on the perceptions of an organisations and what it’s like to work there.

These are some of the starting points for developing a culture, but the most important proof point is what happens when people behave contrary to the agreed purpose, values, policies and expectations.

In other words, policies and procedures are next to useless unless they are top of mind, up-to-date and properly upheld.

That’s when the real culture of an organisation is revealed.