Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006
Corporate - Insight
Corporate culture calls for common code
If all the employees do not adhere to a uniform belief structure, their behaviour may be governed by varying values and individual idiosyncrasies. Hence, corporate employees need a common focus and a common cultural platform.
The etymology of the word `culture' is revealing. The term has agricultural overtones. It means preparing the soil to foster a fertile growth. Weeds must be removed and the ground tilled well to reap a good harvest. Companies like societies and communities have their own cultures. Company cultures support only certain types of conduct, provide an enabling environment only for certain types of enterprises and weed out undesirable behaviour.
Corporate culture is the underlying belief and value structure of an organisation collectively shared by its employees, which is symbolically expressed in a variety of overt and subtle ways. Employees are deeply influenced by corporate culture, which aspect no manager can afford to ignore. There are, at least, three reasons why a company needs to develop a culture.
The human mind is capable of myriad ideas and beliefs. Whereas a company must select only a few to live by sothat its employees may have a common framework of values. If all the employees do not adhere to a uniform belief structure, their behaviour may be governed by varying values and individual idiosyncrasies. Hence, corporate employees need a common focus and a common cultural platform.
The second reason is that culture opens a doorway to coordinate activities of employees. Management philosophers have identified two methods to coordinate employee behaviour Inductive Method and Deductive Method. Inductive Method outlines specific rules, regulations and job descriptions with an expectation that employees will conform to those stipulations. The difficulty is that no manager can provide answers for every contingency that may arise.
Belief in people
The Deductive Method enunciates some general principles and practices. Beyond that, the employees are expected to behave in accordance with the prescribed pattern and when necessary adapt their actions to meet some unique situations. A strict insistence on rule-governed behaviour may impose a psychological straitjacket on employees. Invariably, employees prefer to work with a manager who operates on a set of values rather than a set of rules; who believes in people rather than procedures.
The third reason is that managerial power and authority have their own limitations. Managers derive their authority from their ability to get along with people. The challenge for every manager is to transform power into participation and control into cooperation. Culture moves employees towards self-motivation through a set of internalised beliefs and virtues. It is only culture that binds and glues people in a company together not force, not even rewards.
An effective manager will inform his employees what values govern the company culture, why they are valued and how to act on those values. The last portion is not easy. All employees may not have an ability to perceive the value of what they are doing and, hence, may resent and even resist actualising those values. But a capable manager will overcome such handicaps. He will inspire his employees and create an urge in them to comply with corporate values.
His end mission will be to move the band of values from objective theorems into practical and subjective realities. In other words, employees must convert corporate rhetoric into their own personal experiences. The modus operandi to reach this status in a corporate climate consists of some strategic steps designed to transmit values down the rank and file. The basic strategy is to compose an actionable and realistic cultural statement. An ideal proposition will be broad enough to enthuse an entire population and clear enough to facilitate full and faithful implementation.
A good induction programme
Preferably, a representative and core group of managers including recognised wordsmiths in the organisation must be involved in crafting and constructing this statement. Time spent in preparing the statement is good investment, because subsequent buy-in will be easier and faster. Communicating core values to new employees during the induction period is a good technique, because a fresh entrant is always an eager beaver. The welcome ceremony, the training methodology and the manner of initial interaction by other employees - all these aspects of corporate culture will have an enduring impact on him.
Symbolic reminders of the core values help to propagate and perpetuate their significance. Slogans and boards enable employees to absorb and assimilate the messages behind them. A true story will illustrate this principle better. A company wanted to improve the lethargic attitude of its employees towards incoming telephone calls. Soon, placards reading `Two Rings Are Plenty' appeared all over the office area. An immediate and lasting improvement was achieved. The way a company allocates its outlay is a clear indicator of its integrity in respect of its own culture. A lot of companies profess a strong faith in "customer delight" but few actually put their money into it. It is easy for a company to declare how earnestly it values its employees, but the message becomes a question mark, when employee compensation does not reflect this espoused principle.
Striking a balance
Organisational conflicts often arise because of clashes among competing values. Wise managers reconcile these conflicts by seeking and striking a balance between them. They are sensitive to such actions that stress one value at the expense of another. Quite often, values that seem to be at odds philosophically may, in practical terms, actually augment one another.
Discovering unity amidst diversity, like agreeing to disagree, is a pathway to corporate peace. Good managers are always on the search for this kind of synergy. An apparent paradox after an incisive analysis may turn out to be a reciprocal reinforcement. An effective manager encourages his employees to look for like-mindedness and discount the agenda of differences.
All five fingers in a human hand are not similar, but that does not diminish their dexterity. On the contrary, there are positive advantages due to their dissimilar structure. Perhaps, all these sound like the sermon and incantations of a Zen Master! In many ways, however, that is precisely the role of a manager.
(The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer.)
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