What sort of workplace culture do you have? How would you describe it? This article is about the three types of workplace culture that we regularly encounter when we go into organisations. We represent these three cultures on a continuum or a scale. At one end, we have a culture of harmony. At the other end, we have a culture that is ruthless. In the middle, we have a culture of accountability.
A culture that is ruthless is all about results, it has a very singular focus on getting the bottom-line outcome. It will be pursuing those results at the expense of people. It could be the people within the organisation, it could be people outside, that the organisation exists to serve. Usually, it is both.
A culture of ruthlessness, achieved with that singular focus, is not sustainable, it is short term. I can guarantee that a ruthless culture will end badly, and that results, if they are achieved, will be hard won, and are highly likely to be short term. The only time where we see a culture of ruthlessness prevail, is where there is no choice for the user, and where there is limited choices for the people working there. Once people have choice, they tend to move away from a culture of ruthlessness.
At the other end of the scale, we have the culture of harmony, which is all about making nice, it is all about keeping things smooth, and pretending everyone gets on with everyone. But they tend to do that by avoiding the real issues. We will dig into that a bit more in a moment, because the culture of harmony is the one of real concern for us in this article.
In the middle is the culture of accountability, which is all about honesty, it is all about courage. It is characterised by people having honest conversations, and doing really great work. And it is all about being a great place to come to work. Obviously, accountability is not a comfortable thing to achieve all the time – and it isn’t always easy, which is why there is a difference between a culture of harmony and a culture of accountability.
I hope you are thinking about where you sit on this spectrum. I’m 90% certain that you will sit somewhere between harmony and accountability, because that is what we see represented in our clients, repeatedly. One of the biggest journeys for an organisation is to shift that culture of harmony to one of accountability – where it is still a nice place to work, where people enjoy coming to work, but where things are dealt with.
The reality is that a culture of harmony is superficial, it is a facade. In a culture of harmony, people keep things nice by not addressing issues. When we go into those cultures, the team members say, ‘oh yes, we get on really well together. Everyone is happy, everyone is nice, …’
On the surface, that is true. But you don’t have to dig very deep to find issues. This is an example of what happens in a culture of harmony: I am upset with something you have done, but I won’t raise it with you, because that would threaten the harmony. Instead, I will gossip about you and complain to everyone else. I will be annoyed at you and process that in a passive-aggressive way. All of that creates the mirage of harmony, but with abundant tension lurking beneath.
The reality for organisations – and this is one of the most crucial things that we will cover in any of the articles or blogs that you see from us – organisations do not have a choice. You will either be dealing with conflict, or you will be dealing with tension. When I say there is no choice, what I mean is there is not an option to have neither. You get to choose conflict or tension. But you will have one of them. Why? Because avoiding one creates the other.
Cultures that are strong on harmony, have a lot of tension because the harmony is achieved at the price of dealing with real issues and by avoiding honest conversations. A lot of things are suppressed, and that causes tension.
In a culture of accountability, what we are really doing is stating that we are prepared to have conflict. We are prepared to have disagreements. People may say things that might displease others, and that is okay, if it is done respectfully, and if we have a process of dealing with that.
This is critical because, in dealing with those conflicts, we resolve issues, and we reduce tension. Tension has no upside. Tension is dishonest, it is hidden, and often people will deny it exists. The upside to conflict is that things are dealt with. Conflict can absolutely have some downsides, but those downsides tend to come when leaders don’t have a framework for dealing with conflict, when they don’t have strategies for coaching people, and when they don’t have the confidence to insist that people are honest and open about what is going on. Leaders need to encourage their people to have conflict but do it appropriately and resolve it well.
My advice to any organisation is always to choose conflict over tension because in doing that, you are allowing for accountability and an accountable culture will produce much better results for much longer and be a much better place to come to work.