Building Organizational Culture--Word by Word
by Tamara J. Woodbury
Leader to Leader, No. 39 Winter 2006
he importance of organizational culture and how it contributes to organizational effectiveness and achievement is well established. Organizational culture is possibly the most critical factor determining an organization's capacity, effectiveness, and longevity. It can also contribute significantly to the organization's brand image and brand promise, which can have both positive and negative implications. When culture is out of alignment with mission, core values, and operational strategy, it can become a significant liability for the organization.
Organizational culture plays an especially critical role in most nonprofits, particularly those with a large and ever-changing pool of volunteers. Nonprofits generally evolve from a group of people working on a common cause to solve a community problem. What originally holds these individuals together is their shared commitment or purpose and the common underlying assumptions and values about what they want to accomplish and how they hope to accomplish it. Human systems naturally evolve from habits of behavior and thoughts based on these shared assumptions and values. These predictable and promoted behaviors and the written artifacts created by the groups as a whole gradually become the organizational culture. If the culture within an organization fails to evolve and change as rapidly as the social conditions in the community and society, the organization's culture often loses sight of the commitment or purpose that brought people together in the first place. The organizational culture then becomes an end in itself rather than the means.
To keep organizational culture vital and relevant, people need a deep understanding of why the organization was created, what brought its members together in the first place, and why the group still exists today. Is it an organization with a mission-driven contemporary purpose and strategic focus supported by a healthy organizational culture? Or have once-effective human systems and their procedures, rituals, and bureaucracies--the organizational culture itself--replaced shared goals and values to become the dominant source of power and energy in the organization?
When the organizational culture strays away from its original mission, goals, and strategies, the task becomes one of transforming the organization to revitalize the culture. In reality, the transformation of the organization as a whole is only achieved through the change and growth that takes place within each member of the group. In my own experience, such transformation and enhancement is best accomplished through a process of shared, collaborative learning. Conversation is the core process of shared learning in most work settings and is the starting point to building individual human and organizational capacity simultaneously. As basic as it sounds, a conversation about a shared vision marks the beginning of the process. People do not invest in the vision of a current or past leader; they invest in their own vision. Reaching a shared vision can only be accomplished with a language and process that promotes inclusion and connection of everyone concerned.
t the Girl Scouts in Arizona, we started our conversation toward cultural transformation with the five most important questions posed by management guru Peter Drucker:
1. What is our mission?
2. Who is our customer?
3. What does our customer value?
4. What is our plan?
5. What are our results?
As simple as these questions are, the dialog and debate they generated among us was lively and informative. It also had the effect of updating our thinking. When we gathered demographic information and analyzed the in-depth customer feedback we had received, we learned much about the organizational assumptions and mental models that had been driving our operational strategy. As we looked deeper, we discovered just how powerfully our own language had influenced and contributed to our organizational culture. We are still debating whether the language described or created the culture. Perhaps it did both.
In our focus groups and dialogue sessions, we learned that many of our 9,200 volunteers did not believe that our Girl Scout Council trusted them. After learning of this, we intentionally moved beyond pinning the blame on either our people or our practices; instead, we began asking more questions of our volunteers and of ourselves. We discovered a plethora of unintentional organizational messages that had been embedded in our own language. For example, in a four-page brochure to introduce new volunteers to Girl Scouting, the words must, mandatory, or required came up 84 times in a simple word search. In our zeal to promote the health and safety of girls, we had unknowingly used command-and-control language that implicitly communicated that we did not trust our volunteers to make their own decisions in the best interest of girls. When we further examined our organizational practices and training curricula, we realized we had assumed that the behavior of our volunteers and staff could be controlled through the use of rulemaking, mandatory training, rigid boundary-setting. and organizational authority distributed through a positional hierarchy. Over time, these practices had begun to generate unintended consequences in our organization's culture.
As we reviewed our own organizational artifacts, we were amazed at both the language we had chosen to employ and the bureaucratic barriers we had unintentionally established--all in the "best interest" of our organization. We discovered how risk-averse we really were: we had, in effect, exiled innovation, creativity--and anyone who wanted to do things differently. Perhaps the most disconcerting effect was the degree to which our ability to be a truly inclusive organization--which had been one of our most cherished core values for decades--had been so severely reduced by our culture.
Diverse organizations promote creativity, innovation, and flexibility. In fact, they even tend to plan for, and purposely learn from, the effects of environmental unpredictability. How did we ever think we could build diversity through conformity? We did not. We neglected to look at this issue systemically, failing to examine ourselves to see how our underlying assumptions about uniformity, fairness, and the so-called simplicity of "one way to do things" had run counter to our core value of inclusivity. We did not see how our prescribed methods of working, viewing, and solving problems often left members of our group from other cultures or life experiences feeling as if they were truly unwelcome.
Generally, our volunteers had always been drawn to serve in the Girl Scouts out of a personal commitment and desire to make a difference in the lives of girls. However, what we found was that our organizational culture did not really value, recognize, or reward their personal commitment. Instead, what our culture explicitly and implicitly expressed was that what we really valued was their compliance. In retrospect, this was extremely apparent in our language, our structure, and the way power and authority were distributed among the volunteers. It was even apparent in the ways we conducted our business and governance meetings. In short, our organizational culture and the language we had always used did not promote the values and beliefs many of us believed we held in common and were the core values of the organization. This became more and more evident as we embarked on the long journey of organizational transformation.
uring the course of our internal debates, the larger question that faced us became "What is safety?" To answer this question, we held follow-up interviews with the girls, which led to a critical point of learning at the organizational level--the girls were much more concerned about their emotional and spiritual safety than they were about their physical safety. We heard comments such as "I would rather have my leg broken than my confidence shattered in front of my friends.... I know my leg will heal, I'm not sure about my self-esteem." Of course, physical safety is the concern that parents articulate the most and the bulk of our volunteers are also parents. How could we reorganize our systems, education, and resources to support our new understanding of safety while simultaneously building trust with our volunteers?
The vast majority of Girl Scout volunteers are parents of girls in their troops, and we truly believed that 99 percent of them had nothing but the best of intentions for their daughters and other members under their charge. If we were to change our old underlying assumptions and fully, consciously trust our volunteers to do what is in the best interest of girls, what would change? What would happen if we were to provide very clear and concise language about what safety really means, instead of directing them how to be safe through detailed rules and regulations? How would this affect our culture?
Ours has been a journey of dynamic change that started with the examination of all our own organizational language--word by word--from our mission statement to our permission slips. We had to determine the type of organizational culture necessary to best support the delivery of experiential learning activities and opportunities that would provide girls what they really want and need to foster their development of personal leadership, character, courage, self-worth, resiliency, compassion, and a healthy predisposition toward taking action.
We learned from the girls that what they wanted most were committed friendships and a sense of belonging. This finding was supported by national research. The research also indicated that what they needed most was at least one authentic relationship with a caring and loving adult. When we coupled the values of our customers with our own mission statement, a clear pattern of language and intentions emerged that helped us identify specific words that would influence and guide our organizational culture toward the outcomes we wanted for girls and the girls wanted for themselves. Trust, love, responsibility, leadership, character, compassion, innovation, inclusiveness, integrity, and fun were the primary words we believed would best describe the culture that would produce our desired outcomes.
The Importance of Language
anguage is one of the explicit means by which culture is communicated within an organization. The language used in written materials and by influential leaders is often amplified in nonprofit organizations because volunteers frequently have an episodic and sometimes short-term relationship with the organization. They are not there long enough or frequently enough to learn the culture through the kind of implicit experiences that happen over time. For this reason, extra care and attention must be given to examining and updating our organization's language--word by word.
The language and behaviors of our past are persistent and pervasive in their formative effects on our present. Sustaining positive and meaningful changes in an organization requires the perseverance of leadership throughout the organization at both the staff and volunteer levels: leaders who recognize, model, coach, and reward the behaviors that reinforce the culture they and their organization are seeking to build. These leaders must not only walk the talk--they must also talk the talk, being ever conscious of the language they use in their speech and their writing. This is second in importance only to the continued process of renewing group members' personal connection with the mission and purpose of the organization--if, indeed, you truly want them to successfully abandon their attachments to the old organizational culture.
Embedding a New Culture
mbedding a new culture within an existing organizational fabric often begins with focusing from the outside in. Instead of just focusing on the patterns and perceptions inside the organization, it is important to understand how the community, your customers, and your donors perceive your culture. How much of your brand image is tied to your culture? Most important, is your organizational culture in alignment with your mission, organizational goals, and strategies? Is it the means for the end?
Six years later, we are still on the long and challenging path of transformation. We have a clearer understanding of our brand image, its interconnectedness with our culture, and the inherent brand promise the community, our customers, and donors expect us to deliver. We also have a better awareness of how our culture is expressed through the language used in our materials, curricula, and other artifacts. We still provide numerous adult volunteer educational experiences. However, unlike the past, only two of them remain mandatory. We still have rules and policies, many of which emanate from our national organization; however, the bulk of our local written materials now consist of information, guidelines, and tips. We have even challenged our legal counsel, our insurance carrier, our board members, and our operational volunteers to reduce the amount of compliance and paperwork required of our volunteers. We have asked each of these parties to build on the understanding that we want to promote the personal commitment of our volunteers to do what is right for girls, rather than commanding it.
As a part of this process, our board has openly and formally examined its tolerance for risk, in terms of lost opportunity and capacity to serve girls. For example, we determined that our volunteers deliver over 95 percent of the programmatic experiences to more than 26,000 Girl Scouts annually. Our 60-member paid staff delivers the remaining 5 percent of the programming and provides support for the volunteers. If we annually lost 40 percent of our volunteer workforce--with the majority of them reporting that their chief complaint was too much paperwork and required training (the bulk of which was meant to protect the organization and its assets from lawsuits)--were we not really losing our organization's biggest asset, its volunteers?
With this new insight, our board immediately began changing how it governed and made policy and other decisions. One of the first strategic priorities was to develop policies that supported the reduction in the amount of required paperwork. We went from having 18 different types of permission slips to just two. Our organizational structure was also simplified to reflect much less hierarchy, with the use of many more teams and an ongoing commitment to promote more adaptive self-organizing human systems, reinforcing the changes in our organizational culture.
Today, the board continues to deliberate and approach its decisions in a wholly different manner than in the past. Recently it has been addressing the question of whether to implement mandatory background checks of all volunteers serving our organization. This has been a growing trend nationally for all organizations serving youth, and is now required by many states. However, rather than just following the trend and making a decision based on the most legally defensible position, our board wanted to closely examine how this decision would affect the volunteers and impact the actual safety of girls.
An assistant police chief and current troop leader whose own daughter is in the Girl Scouts was assigned to chair the board task force. This task force considered the fact that there had never been a verified incident of sexual abuse of a minor girl by any adult woman in our organization or within our state. It evaluated the various vendors and methods that were available to our organization to perform background checks, and discovered that there were no fail-safe methods or vendors to screen sex offenders. Among the data and research gathered about background checks, they learned from law enforcement officials, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other experts that it is those parents who maintain an open line of communication with their children and know the adults who interact with them who create the strongest defense against sexual abuse.
Based on this information, as well as listening to our customers and embracing a new model of risk tolerance, the board developed and implemented two new strategies modeled after the renewed core values of our organization. The first was to educate parents about the importance of their role and their responsibility to be that "first line of defense." The second strategy was to educate our volunteers about physical and sexual abuse--what to watch for, their responsibility in reporting it, and how to report it.
Ultimately, the board will probably decide in the near future to begin performing criminal background checks on all our volunteers. However, this decision is being made in a manner much more consistent with the organizational culture we have adopted and continue to develop--a culture that values its volunteers and the girls we serve first, above and before protecting our physical assets. Regardless of the final decision, it is the process in reaching it that has demonstrated the change in our organizational culture. We have examined and assessed the risk far differently than we would have in the past. This risk assessment has incorporated the perspectives and input of all our resources--our girl members, their parents, our volunteers, and the stewards of our fiscal assets. The board tested assumptions that would not have been tested in the past and has been careful to communicate to our volunteers that we are deeply concerned about how this decision could possibly affect them. Most important, the language and behavior used by the board and administrative leadership strongly and consistently conveyed the value we hold for our volunteers and the organizational trust we place in them, core values and concepts that we are now seeking to reinforce in our culture.
The Strains of Change
ertainly, our volunteers will be the first to tell you that our organizational culture has not reached the pinnacle of management nirvana, but most of them--with any meaningful tenure--will report that clear and definitive steps have been taken to discover and define just what that ideal state is from their own personal perspective. They will also report that volunteers and staff are working together in a very visible partnership to create the potential for its presence throughout the organization. Some volunteers may complain that "the sky is falling"; that there is chaos and unpredictability instead of the clear and distinct order that many of them once valued. For some, the increased flexibility and widely dispersed accountability and authority are freeing and empowering. Others, however, are mourning their loss of power and authority, gone with the titles and positions that they once held.
The concept of team learning, and of teamwork itself, is not always easy for the "old guard." Some of the older volunteers resent the newly emerging leadership, which is proving to be younger, more diverse, more innovative, and bolder. However, even the matriarchs of the organization, who often acted in the past as the gatekeepers of the old organizational culture, are beginning to find their own pathway to personal growth during this process of transformation in our organization. I believe that this is occurring because of the real conversations they have been having with the girls and the other adults, beginning with the learning circles and processes promoting dialogue that we have used throughout our journey. They are now hearing and listening to new volunteers who share their own stories of personal transformation and discovery learned through Girl Scouting. These matriarchs are finding that although the Girl Scouting experience of the new members may differ, sometimes significantly, from their own as girl members or troop leaders, it still has had the same profound impact on their own personal lives.
When people reconnect with their own commitment to make a difference in the world and find that they play a meaningful role in building an organization and culture based on shared vision and core values, they will not hesitate to embrace and participate in the change they want to happen. Their own language and behavior--word by word and deed by deed--will inevitably create a culture that truly and meaningfully enhances and strengthens their capacity to actualize the mission of the organization.
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