Is it that the older you are the more people you see being badly treated at work — your peers for example being abruptly jettisoned from their companies or forced into redundancies? Or have workplaces been allowed to become much more savage? Are employees now reduced to inputs and outputs and inserted and exited accordingly? Are young people, permitted to work only on a contract basis, simply cannon fodder for short-term gains? Has the vision of engaged employees busy with meaningful work also been outsourced to Asian countries? We are always astounded at leaders who naively state that organisational culture can’t be measured. Like many others, we have long been measuring, benchmarking and co-designing cultural initiatives to nurture desirable workplace cultures.
Asia has been our focus over the past 5 years; we have worked with multinational enterprises in 14 countries. Business leaders in Asia have perhaps a greater incentive to measure and manage the cultures that emerge because of the less established standards of governance there. The diversity of values and societies between each country also makes the process of managing organisational culture across the region much more intentional than in the West.
Not surprisingly, our measurements bring up many of the same dysfunctionalities in organisational culture as in Australia, as well as some that are peculiarly Asian.
The ‘view from the top’ is typically rosier from the bottom up. Leaders focus on the amount of policies and procedures in the belief that all risks have been identified and corralled. Those at the bottom see policies and procedures as negotiable depending on pressures of time and budget, on managerial deference or on group loyalties. While Codes of Conduct are signed by all, the ‘why’ behind these protocols – and therefore their legitimacy – is little understood. Compliance fatigue reigns.
Less developed standards of marketplace governance in Asia mean that greater attention has to be paid to teaching employees how to recognise the effects (especially on a brand’s integrity) of ‘bending’ to local conditions. Traditional cultural values around obligations to extended family or deference to organisational authority could inhibit employees from challenging poor behaviour or advancing issues of concern. Institutionalised ‘safe ladders of escalation’ to enable employees to raise issues are a necessity of any compliance system. The prevailing hierarchical management models can spawn whispering or gossip cultures that get in the way of business efficiency and cultural change. Building robust two-way communication systems and regular measurement of their effectiveness are vital goals in an organisational culture.
What is wonderful about working with multinationals as they shape their workplaces in Asia is the engagement and responses they win from local employees. In each country, we have witnessed employee enthusiasm, commitment and a desire for workplaces to succeed. Local staff want to work for multinationals and tell us they feel safe because the rules of success are transparent and because they know these employers will invest in them and in their development. It’s win-win. They have ethical ambition and typically measure their success by the company’s’ success: they take pride in their contribution. Personal accountability is a given. Doing good work here brings personal honour and satisfaction and not just a pay packet. It is by doing business in an ethical manner that employees see they can play a role in designing the sort of world they want their children to live in. Purposely designing organisational culture matters. It’s why employees in Asia have voted multinationals the employer of choice in each country.
So what can Australian business leaders learn from measuring culture in Asia? Predominantly that it can be done. That in so doing it enables employees to feel safe at work. Feeling safe builds trust and paves the way for engagement, productivity and innovation. Savage workplace cultures can only emerge where culture is not measured.
Measuring organisational culture demonstrates respect for employees by affirming their right to be heard. It also requires courage as the answers you get to questions about work culture typically require changes at the top. The payback however, is something everyone can be proud of.
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