What Makes a Healthy Organisational Culture?

Recently I invited people to complete a quick online survey to find out more about the factors making up a healthy organisational culture.  In the first question, participants were asked to rank the importance of a number of attributes. It comes as no surprise that all respondents thought the following attributes were important to a healthy organisation, ranking them in the following order:

·       Desire to learn from mistakes

·       Clear and consistent tone from the top

·       Managers leading by example

·       Clear statement of values and ethics

·       Senior people willing to hear bad news

·       It’s easy to speak up when you spot something is wrong

·       People have clear objectives and are trusted to get on with the job

·       Swift and fair disciplinary action to deal with poor behaviour

The survey then asked people to rank these same attributes in terms of their experience at their own workplace. The most positive agreement was for a clear statement of values and ethics.  But for other statements, there was a significant gap between the ‘very important’ ranking for the first question and how respondents experienced such issues in their own organisation. This throws up an important issue for charity leaders, highlighting that it’s what you do that counts, not simply what you say.

Culture has been at the root of corporate and charity failures, but most people talk about the difficulty of culture change and the time it takes. This doesn’t have to be the case – the above eight points are just a selection, but you could make a start with those. This is a job for the board with the senior managers. Leading the culture and setting the tone is such an important aspect of leadership that it needs to be undertaken as a joint endeavour. Treating the board as ‘masters’ and the senior managers as ‘servants’ does not develop the sense of shared leadership that is needed to adapt and change in an uncertain world. In successful charities, trustees listen and learn from the managers and staff, as well as contributing their own experience and knowledge. Challenge and support are used in equal measure and there is ‘two-way’ traffic. The role of the Chair in setting the tone of board-executive interaction is crucial, but everyone plays their part, both in meetings and outside. We all need to make time to build trust and learn how to work together.

Kate Sayer