Now that we’ve covered control through direct supervision and rules and regulations, let’s move on to something less autocratic.
Control through culture – our shared norms, values and beliefs – is one of the more intriguing forms of control as it revolves around the complexities of human behaviour. Culture is what holds organisations together, a little bit like glue, and attempts to influence or change it is a little bit like social engineering, not too dissimilar from the Dutch industrialist Van Marken’s original meaning in 1894.
There are two forms of culture in an organisation, visible and hidden. Visible culture is the easiest to understand as it’s tangible and as such can easily be changed, influenced and controlled. An example of visible culture is a company logo and tag line, corporate websites, open plan offices, type and style of furniture, leisure areas and mini-environments but also things like who gets a laptop, business cards and presentation of annual awards. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the picture.
The hidden aspect of culture is much harder to identify as it resides in the minds and behaviour of individual employees. It is through words and actions that we build realities of relationships with our colleagues, but the values and beliefs associated with these relationships remain intangible, making control of hidden culture much more challenging. Hidden culture is also incredibly difficult to measure, as it relies on the honesty and openness of employees, and we’ve already established that this is a complex arena where the principal actors are power and politics.
Here are a few examples to help illustrate my points.
The offices of my previous employer were located next to St Paul’s Cathedral and opposite the London Stock Exchange. Once you had made your way through the strict security protocols and taken the escalator to the first floor, you were greeted by a team receptionists who, together with the concierge, were ready to assist you in any way they could in order to make your day pleasant and, of course, efficient. We had a staff restaurant (who would’ve guessed I could have daily eggs benedict) and even sparkling water on tap. I confess it is the poshest offices I’ve ever worked in. I also confess that it made me feel privileged and important, and I sure wanted to prove to myself and my boss I deserved all of these luxuries.
And there you go, quad erat demonstratum, control through the visible elements of culture. Was I gullible? Yes, a little. Does it always work? No.
The main issue with control through culture in this scenario is that it focused too much on the visible elements and neglected the hidden elements. I found it very difficult to connect socially with other colleagues, possibly because I sat right in the middle of a sales floor with what felt like over one hundred 25 year-olds, but of course, there were other contributing factors as well, such as recovering from post-acquisition trauma, continuous organisational change and the introduction of flexible working and hot-desking. All of this meant that the company I had once worked for was now a brand that kept losing a little bit of its soul for every day that passed. I’m being melodramatic to some degree, and there were integration attempts, especially on the sales floor, with its never-ending contests and special rewards, but these failed to instil the concept of shared values and beliefs.
Over the last six weeks I’ve come across some pretty interesting examples of cases of culture control. Google is a great example with its variety of perks and quirky mini-environments all aimed at making employees feel and believe what Google wants them to feel and believe. But what’s important is that culture has the capacity to unlock tremendous creative and commercial behaviour. Google’s 20% Time is a good example of this. Here, employees can spend up to 20% of their time working on their own projects unrelated to their job role. And lo-and-behold, some of Google’s top products have come out of this initiative. Similarly, the Australian software company Atlassian has what is called FedEx days. Here, employees are given 24 hours to go and work on something of their own and have to present – and deliver – their project the next day.
Pretty cool, eh?
Having read about culture control made me realise how much potential there is to unlock. It just requires someone to turn the key.
At FSG, I’ve recently started an initiative called Lightbulb Sessions and the idea is to get a group of people together from different departments and facilitate and encourage cross-departmental and cross-functional solutions to specific problems or challenges we face. Our first session will be next month with the sales, marketing and digital teams.
Have I mentioned how much I’m loving this course and my job?