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Cultural leadership and HR

What is the “culture” of a business? How would employees describe it?

Do leaders know what it is in reality?

Do surveys feed back a useful picture of the culture?

Is a corporate organisation a real community?

Forbury experience has shown facilitated focus groups often reveal a better picture than reports from surveys. It usually needs the right environment to draw out employees’ real feelings.

On occasion this can be a shock to management, but is also a positive sign as in general it is a sign of commitment to the business when employees speak up about things they would like to see done differently or about problems they experience. Apathy and indifference are harder to tackle than expressed concerns.

Indeed it is sometimes surprising to see how much employees do care about how the business is doing even if they have no real stake in its success beyond their own job security. It is part of human instinct to want to be part of a community, which for many very much includes their workplace. Any steps to address employees’ needs and give them a voice therefore adds a lot to their sense of community and of trust in the business, which is at the heart of the employment relationship and of loyalty.

Any sort of dialogue and feedback helps to clarify the culture and the state of the trust relationship.

There is then the issue what to do with that knowledge, and here the problems can really start. It needs strong and values driven leadership to build trust and confidence, and this is going to come first from senior management. It also has to be shared across all management levels so as not to undermine trust.

Only too often, the leaders of the business will adopt and communicate good corporate values and fair dealing with the workforce, but this is diluted or totally negated by lower levels of management behaving inconsistently with those values.

This is the type of feedback a focus group may reveal, as employees may only in that context express their disappointment about the gap between what a company says and what it does.

So culture includes the living out of good values, including wider corporate social responsibilities which employees recognise and respect, reinforcing confidence in management to do the right things.

Very often decision making neglects the trust relationship at its peril, with leaders making numerous small adverse decisions which in aggregate give out a message that the employees are the lowest priority. The exact opposite can be achieved when all the small decisions cumulatively show that employees are considered as human beings with worries and concerns of their own.

Sometimes businesses may think of the physical workplace as part of the culture, which may indeed be relevant, and remuneration models contribute too, as of course these are part of what makes employees happy at work, but the best workplace and pay on the planet will not fill the cultural gap if values, leadership, and management behaviours are not aligned.

It is often the case that HR and Culture are combined, certainly implying that HR owns culture and is responsible for safeguarding a good culture. Yet the fact is that HR can only work with the leadership it follows and cannot on its own create trust and confidence among employees.

Apathy and indifference are harder to tackle than expressed concerns.

HR can test the culture, the way the culture is expressed and communicated, the way that decisions impact employees for good or bad, and what measures work to improve engagement and trust among most people. However, it is only really effective when it “speaks truth to power”, armed with the facts and the experience of dealing day to day with people, and finding out through daily communication and/or focus groups and forums what they feel and think, and can help steer the business to behaviours and attitudes which will make a difference on the day employees have to choose who they believe and who they will trust.

Today more and more businesses live with change as routine, not as an exceptional event, for which most humans are fundamentally unsuited as they like security, stability and continuity. It is at these times that trust and confidence really count, and when trade unions or employees encourage dissent and even disruption the choice falls to employees who they most trust with their future.

If the leaders cannot command trust at such times of testing they struggle to achieve successful changes and the business may at the least suffer ongoing problems, grievances and employee disaffection.

Culture is community, the way we live and work in common interest, and communities depend on feeling engaged and respected in that community. Communities are generally guided in any context by community leaders, and in the workplace this is the senior management’s calling and obligation, meaning that as ever it begins and ends with the right leadership well advised and supported to build trust.

HR is the constant support structure, must be valued for that in the business, and must not fall short in that task or the culture weakens and the community, and possibly the leadership, is lost.

Michael Sippitt


Forbury People Ltd

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This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

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