The Impact of Culture During Turbulent Times

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By Priscilla Nelson and Ed Cohen

Adapted and updated from an article that first appeared in Strategy & Business Magazine, September 2010.

While working as senior talent leaders for a global organization that went through a 2.5 billion dollar scandal (not counting peripheral damages) when the Chairman confessed to “cooking the books” causing the near bankruptcy and closure of the company, we had the opportunity to observe and be a part of culture’s true influence. During turbulent times, like those we are going through now with Covid-19, leadership is not determined by rank but by the strength of the talent and conviction to build the relationships necessary to bring about collaboration and seek solutions. In our situation, leaders came from all areas and from all levels. There was a sincere desire, but without knowledge, they required continuous guidance. This is a must-start, high-impact area for HR and talent professions. HR and talent professionals should continuously communicate with leaders, provide advice on how to lead during turbulence, and make available rapid skill enhancement. One such area where they can have tremendous impact is by educating (yes, we mean educating) leaders about how much they influence their organizational culture.

The “fallout” from organizations going through turbulent times like Covid-19, extends itself to the employees, their families, the public and many times the greater global community. Recall the ramifications of the volcanic eruptions over Iceland. It had a tremendous financial impact on the airline industry and those of us who fly hither and yon. It also resulted in many people being laid off. Peripherally, businesses (many of them small) all over the world dependent on the airline industry were also impacted. From taxi drivers, to hotels and the local flower shop down the street from where you live that could not import the special arrangements you wanted. The culture of an entire industry, those working for that industry and each of these examples were influenced.

Consider the Toyota crisis. Cultural differences between Japan and the United States brought about other challenges. In Japan, subtlety and withdrawal have very deliberate intentions, where in the United States they would be seen as arrogant or dismissive. Rooted in many aspects of Confucianism, Japan puts much more focus on the responsibility of the individual to others. Building and helping community is an expected responsibility and when an individual does not meet those expectation there is great shame. There is, therefore, a great pressure to unite around ideas, projects and causes than what we might see in the United States.

Roland Kelts addresses this in detail in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, February 2010. According to Kelts, “…we tend to prize opinionated, headstrong mavericks who are often lauded for their capacity to stand out from the crowd. In Japan however, it is the individual who can facilitate and sustain maximum harmony among group members – the Japanese concept of wa – who achieves praise for leadership in society…”

Never wanting injury or death from such an event, in many ways their culture of humility drove Toyota, a Japanese-based corporation, where Mr. Akio Toyoda took this as a very personal catastrophe and, again, according to Kelts…” a surer sign of a successful corporate leader in Japan is that he (they are almost all men) remains virtually invisible to the public eye, while his organization thrives, and face saving, allowing others to maintain their dignity even when they have erred, is tantamount to ensuring that all group members feel respected. Openly admitting a mistake, or forcing another to do so, invites embarrassment and disharmony. Far better to indirectly make or exchange concessions; indirection eludes confrontation, thus avoiding conflict.”

Do you see where we are going with this? When Toyoda testified on Capital Hill the entire exchange of plans for the event and his subsequent trip to Washington, D.C., were fraught with cultural mishaps and miscommunications. His apology was akin to the ultimate public humiliation. For the sake of Toyota and the global community he called upon all the strength he had available to do so. Toyota employees around the world saw him as a great leader and a hero. This selfless act helped to begin rebuilding the lost employee pride in the never-before tarnished reputation of Toyota. They felt more united and the organization began its recovery.

BP employees also experienced what it feels like to have shame introduced into their culture. It’s quite common for employees to take on the embarrassment caused by of the actions of others and good leaders must recognize the need to care for these wounded leaders and employees. If the organization has planned and prepared well, many programs and systems would be in place for such turbulent times. If not, the road back is tricky and filled with additional challenges because it requires shifting the organization’s culture to get it back on track. An event that rocks their world, such as the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, can be the catalyst that introduces many new and unwanted elements into the culture.

Turbulence of any kind can affect an organization’s culture. To prepare for these changes, the necessary steps to protect and adjust the organizational culture must be planned, and this planning needs to be done before, during, and following turbulent times. This is an area where talent professionals play a primary role. They have regular access to more people than those in any other part of the organization making them are uniquely prepared to play a powerful role in its revitalization. They can gather information, facilitate learning solutions, communicate changes, assist in determining necessary cultural changes, and provide coaching for leaders to introduce and reinforce desired outcomes. Moreover given their scope of responsibility, they are well positioned to observe the organizational culture as it grows over time. And thus they also tend to be well aware that people tend to be become comfortable with the current organizational culture, for them to consider cultural change, a significant event must usually occur. Any major event can be the catalyst for shifting the organizational culture. Even so, attempting to change this culture could well be the most difficult project anyone will ever take on.

Let’s take a look at BP. Their perceived lack of disclosure and transparency has now become part of their culture. In addition to impacting their brand, it influenced the decisions of employees around the world. The collateral damage is well known, the small fisherman who closed his family owned business after three generations and 30 years, the restaurant owners who were unable to provide fresh oysters for their guests and saw diminishing sales as customers went elsewhere, the families who survived one crisis after another in the Gulf, and the thousands of species at risk for extinction. Had BP come forth earlier with the facts about how many gallons of oil were actually leaking into the Gulf perhaps better or faster methods might have been available for containment. Until the leaders decided to be more transparent and forthcoming with information, they continued to have consequences that became a long term part of their culture.

Looking further at BP’s culture, how could they have overcome the shame that their employees are now carrying with them? The could have added it to the leadership development agenda, and taken measured steps to constantly reinforce the need to communicate with employees, to let them know everything about what is known and unknown. Beyond that, an organization like BP needs to invite their people to be a part of the solution (which is much more than capping the well in the gulf). With the right steps, BP could have reduced the fears of their people and engaged them in the process of revisiting their culture from the inside-out to reap the benefits of having more than 100,000 brand ambassadors. Instead, they suffered for years and have yet to come back to the strength and reputation they enjoyed prior to the spill.

Remember healing always starts from within. These lessons don’t have to be learned in crisis. Organizations can create and sustain a culture that welcomes the positive influences and eliminates the negative with talent professionals can be right there at the front lines, using leading through learning strategies to help their organizations.

Join our upcoming HRDQ-U two-part webinar series titled “Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times like Covid”.

Leveraging a Lights On Strategy on September 2, 2020 at 2pm ET/11am PT.

Renewing your Employee Value Proposition on September 23, 2020 at 2pm ET/11am PT.

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