Peter Drucker once commented that culture eats strategy for breakfast. In truth, it eats everything else in its path – for if culture determines structure, structure determines strategy, and strategy determines function, then culture basically eats it all for breakfast, lunch and dinner. An organisation’s culture evolves over time, guided by the actions of the few at the top. These few can include founders, owners, or long-term senior employees. For example, Singaporeans have a “kiasu” mentality – a culture of not wanting to be left out or to lose out. Some people say that it is mirrored around Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s mindset, in his desire to not want to lose when he entered politics, and then as he guided Singapore through its growth trajectory. Singapore is what it is because of Mr Lee, and of his somewhat-kiasu mentality. Is it a wonder that Singaporeans are now somewhat kiasu too? Culture is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it turns nasty, a whole organisation can be easily brought down. In this article, I shall talk about 4 warning signs that your culture is about to eat you out of house and home, and if nothing is done to change that, you might soon be out in the cold!
1. High degree of centrality
When there is a high degree of centrality, decisions are made by only a few people. When this happens, one cannot move without having someone else look over their shoulder. Decisions are questioned and there is a sense that no idea will fly unless it is created, or cleared, by higher-ups. This will make the whole organisation grind to a halt. If you find that even your boss is disempowered because of the centrality of decision-making, it is a sign that culture will eat your structure for lunch and dinner!
2. Countermanding office-bearers
Following on from the first sign, when you see senior office-bearers’ decisions being countermanded by the “central committee”, either directly in their face or in a more subversive way through lower-positioned employees, you know that there is no unity in senior management, and the organisation is not primed for growth. This culture disrespects the organisation’s structure, strategy, and function, despite all claims to be in support of it. And the telltale sign of this? High senior management turnover.
3. Lack of credibility
If the “central committee”has the habit of saying one thing and doing something else, they will very soon find themselves lacking credibility. This causes everyone in the organisation to distrust what is being said, with people resorting to using “black-and-white” to cover their tracks. There will be many “email wars”, and many more meetings because nobody wants, or is empowered, to make decisions. Yet during these meetings, discussions are usually carried out by the few, with the rest just waiting for the decision to be made, and instructions handed out. Nobody volunteers any ideas because they realise that these ideas will not count for much by the “central committee” which had already made up its mind long before the meeting was called. But even if there was a decision made at the meeting that was not aligned with the “central committee”, they will still disregard that and go ahead with their own ideas, disrespecting everyone at the meeting. Such meetings are therefore deemed farcical, resulting in even less credibility.
4. Treating people badly
If vendors are not being paid on time, if staff are owed their dues, if salaries are below market benchmarks, if human resources practices are exploitative, if blaming is how the “central committee” deals with issues, the organisation’s culture is eating itself out of house and home. People are the lifeblood of every organisation and if the company puts its own interests ahead of the people who support it, it would soon find no one left to shoulder the responsibilities outlined by the structure, and required by the strategy – both internally and externally. So while structure eats strategy, culture creams it all every time!
Drastic cultural change is required
If an organisation is displaying these signs, the odds are that there is no strategy, there is no structure, perhaps only perfunctory function - and a toxic culture. What needs to be done is to help the “central committee” get out of its controlling and fixed mindset, even moving them onto a separate structure, if necessary, where they can put their strengths to use. There is a need to design a new culture where everyone is respected, structure is supported, strategy is embraced, and performance is rewarded and celebrated, not just by word, but in deed as well, by all stakeholders. If this does not happen, the organisation may find itself out in the cold very quickly.