Why culture is doomed without shared ownership

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Workplace culture may be cited as one of the most important issues for employees but how many actually take an active role in improving it? According to one industry expert, staff are quick to point upwards when there’s a problem but it’s time they took responsibility for their own actions.

“The whole notion of culture is so complex and so complicated that people might know the culture is not as good as it could be but feel a bit powerless or a bit unable to do anything about it,” says workplace expert Steve Simpson. “In fact, it gets to the point where in some cases people have given up hope of it being any different.”

Simpson says part of this problem stems from the fact that leaders are often considered the ones solely responsible for workplace culture – by both employees and organisations.

“I argue that’s absolutely not the case – my argument is that leaders are primarily but not solely responsible for the culture,” he says. “If leaders think it’s their sole responsibility, they’re missing the point.”

According to Simpson – who was recognised in 2015 as the Australian Educator of the Year – leaders who want to improve workplace culture will only see meaningful success if they encourage shared ownership.

“We need to get everyone excited about the prospects, we need everyone owning this, we need everyone thinking about their own personal behaviours because employees contribute to culture and they can sometimes take a cop-out positon, pointing upwards and saying; ‘If only they’d fix things, we’d be okay.’

“It’s just not good enough,” stresses Simpson. “They might be doing this subconsciously but we need to be more conscious about this. That doesn’t absolve the responsibility of leaders, far from it, they still are the primary drivers, but they’re not the sole drivers here.”

Simpson says one of method of promoting shared ownership is making employees aware of their subconscious actions or behaviours which may be damaging the culture.

“It’s possible, maybe probable, that some people are subscribing to less than positive behaviours but are doing so unconsciously and once you learn about them you have to make a conscious choice, you can no longer claim ignorance.”

Simpson says one of the most effective ways of addressing these subconscious behaviours is to identify the behaviours people don’t like within an organisation and then get them to write ideal alternatives.

“I was working with a group a while back and one lady said she didn’t like the amount of negative gossip that happens so I said; ‘If you flip that around what would it be?’

“What she came back with was terrific, she said; ‘Around here, people are approached directly and constructively when there’s a problem.’”

According to Simpson, the method offers a simple and actionable ground rules which, if followed, will guide employees and organisations to a more positive culture.

“It’s a way to create a bridge of understanding to the values or key cultural attributes,” he says.

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