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<strong> The Interactions Between Behaviours, Systems and Symbols </strong>

The Interactions Between Behaviours, Systems and Symbols

While on holiday in Copenhagen recently, I visited the headquarters of Maersk, the Danish business conglomerate and largest container ship operator in the world. The tour guide explained that Maersk logo, the seven pointed star was a symbol of ‘The seven seas the company sails’. He then went on, jokingly, to say that some employees say it is a symbol of the number of days a week employees are expected to work. It made me think about how symbols are used in companies; how different the managerial intentions are and how employees perceive these symbols.

In our last blog we introduced the concept of the channels through which culture is promoted and maintained. These are:

Behaviours - Ways in which we act or conduct ourselves, especially towards others

Systems - Mechanisms of management including operating systems, IT systems, policies, procedures, and organisational structures

Symbols - Events or decisions to which people attribute a meaning which express specific ideologies and ‘cultural norms’

(based on C Taylor, 2005, Walking the Talk)

From our experience with clients, we have seen many instances of how behaviours, systems and symbols can impact each other. They weave together, and as such understanding their interactions is important in managing culture. Let’s take company KPI’s and objectives for example. Often we have seen how the objectives of the organisation are cut up and delegated between functional areas e.g. Sales, Operations etc. Directors are responsible for the delivery of their own KPI (usually linked to bonus) and therefore the director encourages behaviour through the division to achieve their divisional KPI target.

What’s wrong with that? The problems come when the company faces an issue to solve across divisional structures. When faced with this dilemma, the ability to let go of Divisional KPIs and work collaboratively for the benefit of the whole company becomes a real challenge. When bonuses are linked to divisional KPI’s there is a risk that solutions for the whole organisation are missed. There is an argument that executives need to be incentivised, on their executive team results rather than individual divisional performance.

Another example is when the budget calendar falls. If the budget cycle starts in April, a divisional director may follow the classic example of getting in quick with their investment projects at the start of the budget cycle. They know that if performance is poor, that their budget may be slashed later in the financial year. This may be a very wise move for divisional results but may not be the best investment opportunity for the company as a whole facing difficult trading conditions.

For me, the author who has really pushed the way we look at how organisational structure can impact behaviour is Fredrick Laloux in his book ‘Reinventing Organisations’. Laloux focuses on the influence of structures and organisational processes that empower workers to meet the company’s strategy.

I became interested in Laloux’s book when working on a client with excessive levels of management hierarchy. Through the culture evaluation, we realised that the hierarchy was quite static as there was very little management staff turnover. Due to the number of layers (too many cooks spoil the broth) communication from leaders to employees was distorted or lost by middle management and direction was increasingly unclear. Initiatives were slowed down in the excessive bureaucratic decision-making This structure was not conducive for a truly innovative culture which their strategy demanded.

Laloux looks at all aspects of organisational development and positions organisations on a spectrum of development with regards to the evolution of its power and managerial structures. The main lesson I learned from reading Laloux’s work was understanding that certain HR initiatives are not appropriate for organisations, depending on how they are structured and their prevailing culture. . If we take the empowerment of employees for example, many companies are talking about empowerment and yet they are structured in pyramidal, hierarchical structures. There are power-differentials in these hierarchical structures between management levels and accountability and responsibility is clear. Decision making is pushed up or outsourced to experts. Their culture is about control from the top. However Laloux cites the example of true empowerment at Southwest Airlines where ground teams are empowered to find creative solutions to passenger problems. The employees on the front-line deal with issues constantly and are therefore trusted to come up with creative solutions. To ensure empowerment works, top and middle managers need to relinquish some of their control. Leaders need to be able to become servant leaders, listening, empowering, developing and motivating their teams. Employee Empowerment is such a buzz topic in HR and OD BUT unless the unconscious power and control dynamics of the structure are clearly understood, launching a big empowerment change initiative could be folly.

The consultant needs to ensure that the company is strong enough in its convictions to commitment to organisational development and to stick with it even in difficult market conditions. It’s easier to experiment when times are good. When things start to go bad, will the company may go back to their old ways of working and well known command and control style?

Laloux also indicates that ‘Values driven culture initiatives’ can fail in a similar way as empowerment initiatives. . By having clear shared values, the company employees at all levels can make distributed ethical decisions internally and in the marketplace, which customers and employees are attracted to. An example of this is the Body Shop whose values for environmental conservation and sustained development spoke to many customers. Companies will be successful if they hold convictions in the company’s values and the executive do not falter even in difficult times. If the company does not uphold its espoused values, this increases cynicism in the workforce and in the consumer base leading to a lack of staff engagement and fall of market share.

Understanding the behaviours, systems and symbols in a culture is paramount. There is no point introducing behaviour change initiatives if the behaviours are hampered by bureaucratic systems. For example, there is no point asking employees to really speak up and be inventive if the current system of management fails to listen as they are too busy dealing with excessive change. The key to cultural change is not a one size fits all, it’s knowing from robust diagnostic insights, which solutions to implement and when for the greatest impact, looking at all three levels of behaviours, systems and symbols – and these need to be driven by the strategy.

Reference: Carolyn Taylor (2005) ‘Walking the Talk’ Random House Business Books

  • By Matthew Burdock
  • 17 May 2017
  • #ReinventingOrganisations #EmployeeEngagement #Values&Culture # Behaviours # Systems

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