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In our leadership training practice we are often confronted by programme results that are less than we would like to see. I say ‘confronted’, not because we face anger or resentment from clients - by and large they are happy with what we deliver - but because we take it really personally when we know that better results were possible.
Having committed to the Kirkpatrick way some years ago, we are now habitual collectors of evidence about how training programmes have played out; so we know that the sometimes mediocre results achieved are real enough. Unlike those L&D providers who deliver training and don’t measure resulting changes in practice, behaviours or results, we are constantly seeing the elephant in the room – which is that quite a lot of leadership learning and development investment doesn’t produce much value for the individuals and organisations participating in it.
When we first understood this basic fact we started to look more widely at the context in which training solutions were being applied – this of course being the organisation in which the training was taking place and where the learners were to apply their new knowledge as changed practices and behaviours to achieve better results. With the help of the Burke-Litwin model we quickly realised that the problem lay in OD rather than L&D. In essence, organisations were insufficiently mature to ‘host’ the new knowledge and to support learners to use it.
The problem can be sheeted home to two different, but not mutually exclusive, influences - Organisational Culture and Workplace Climates.
Organisational Culture is ‘the way we do things round here’; it emanates from the senior leaders and trickles down and throughout the organisation. It gets its character from the interests, actions and methods of the senior leadership; not what they say they will do, but what they are actually observed as doing. How the senior leaders treat each other, subordinates, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders spreads like a virus through the informal networks in the organisation and provides the model for everyone else to copy.
If the resulting Organisational Culture is authoritarian, judgemental, dictatorial, task-focused, and/or cost-averse, you can only imagine how hard it would be for learners to bring new knowledge into work and use it. If the Organisational Culture is even luke-warm about leadership development and change, it might offer a less unpleasant experience but would still effectively forestall learning application and change. Imagine how effective new learning would be if the Organisational Culture truly embraced personal growth, innovation, change and celebrated improved results!
A single organisation can have many Workplace Climates; potentially a different one for each work unit and location. Organisational Culture percolates into each Workplace Climate but its effect is outweighed by the personalities and relationships in the local team. Workplace Climates can sometimes be quite toxic towards innovation, change, application of learning – and equally toxic towards the people who’d like to do those things. Toxic Workplace Climates can be the handiwork of one or two disengaged colleagues whose disruptions are tolerated by weak local leadership. Toxicity compounds if the local leaders are themselves poorly attuned towards changing practices; and compounded also if the Organisation Culture that trickles down legitimises such local aberrations.
Changing Organisational Culture or Workplace Climates is a big task. There is only one action that works – changing the leadership behaviours that are in play among the senior leaders and in the local workplaces. Changing the behaviours of current leaders requires their self-awareness, their interest and energy to make personal changes, and the access to ideas, tools, methods and support to do that. It’s a lot easier to change some Workplace Climates (through changing local leaders’ behaviours); it's much more challenging to change the behaviours of the senior leadership team to impact Organisational Culture from the top.
Of course, a short-cut to changing individuals’ behaviours is to bring in replacement people; a new CEO especially can bring in new leadership thinking and practices to the place where they can add most value – the senior leadership team. But if you want to sustain Organisation Culture change, the new CEO will need plenty of encouragement and tangible support (including a healthy OD budget) to make it happen.
Good performance management infrastructure and capable senior leadership can assure desired local leadership behaviours and, consequently, desired Workplace Climates. However, if senior leadership (and Organisational Culture) are themselves found wanting, local Workplace Climates will be highly variable and some will be toxic.
So, Organisational Culture and Workplace Climates matter; they can assure failure of training initiatives to drive change and improve outcomes. Achieving change-friendly Organisational Culture and Workplace Climates is hard work but can be done. At ODI we would argue that sustaining the right Organisational Culture and Workplace Climate are the principal responsibility of senior and local leaders towards their organisation and their people.