Workplace culture makeover – The search for shared values

Culture change in any organisation takes considerable time to embed. It requires change at the executive and managerial level, at the administrative and academic unit level and importantly also at the individual staff level.

At the organisational level a shared purpose or mission, strategy and accompanying systems, including policies and procedures, must align with the culture the institution seeks to have. These guide the behaviours of all staff within the institution. A significant part of the mission is a workplace culture grounded in shared values.

Support for change in any aspect of an institution’s ways of working relies on the involvement of those who will be affected by it.

The prospect of the change being adopted will be increased if the institution is receptive to broad participation from across the institution from the very beginning of the change process. That includes discussing the intent of the change and potential implications for different groups within the institution.

A culture makeover

Not that long ago I was asked by the then president of a university to facilitate a process whereby the institution would identify what its values should be. The institution was well known to me as I had forged a relationship with it through various invited workshops I had conducted on strategic and operational planning and quality assurance.

It was a young university, still in its infancy in many areas of its operation. While it had made significant progress in many key areas in a relatively short period of time, it had also encountered some contrary practices across its academic faculties and administrative units.

These were a noticeable source of concern and resulted in ongoing tensions across the institution that impacted on staff performance and overall staff well-being.

The president recognised that the organisational culture needed transforming. He decided to make that a priority, understanding that for real positive change to occur in work performance and staff welfare, what was needed was a culture ‘makeover’.

At the heart of many of the undesirable behaviours commented on by staff and that had come to the attention of the president, was a lack of caring, respect, value and collegiality in how people interacted with each other.

There was a sense that some people’s ideas were regularly dismissed while others were repeatedly promoted, that some staff members’ contributions and areas of expertise were not valued equally and that their well-being was of lesser importance.

Shared values

The aim as it was outlined to all staff was to arrive at a set of shared values for the university that would underpin expected behaviours, guide the decision-making process and help create a work culture that was beneficial to all.

To allay some nervousness among staff, and acknowledging that a complete cultural shift would understandably be met with resistance, they also let people know that certain cultural characteristics that had served the university well would be preserved going forward.

The expected result was a more positive and engaged response from staff because they knew that the changes would build on the productive components of the present culture.

The methodology used deliberately strove to be inclusive and collaborative. The principle of participation by all aimed to foster ownership of the values that would guide the organisational culture. It allowed for different perspectives to be acknowledged and respected and provided staff with a real sense of contributing to what would be the university’s future success.

Identifying key themes

The president first invited all staff to attend open forums to share their views and, for those more hesitant about voicing their opinions publicly, to write anonymously to his office.

My involvement commenced with chairing the open forums, listening and collecting all thoughts, beliefs and ideas shared from the forums as well as the written contributions and identifying the key themes from those contributions.

For several staff who attended the forums, it was the first time they had met each other and heard what staff from other administrative or academic units were concerned about.

Participants were provided with the value statements that had been developed as part of the strategic planning process three years earlier. Not unsurprisingly, many said they were not aware of these or had never referred to them in their daily work.

The forums and written contributions had no issue with the existing statements, which encompassed aspects of quality, innovation, excellence and equity as it related to teaching, learning, scholarship and research.

However, there was an overwhelming majority of staff who expressed disquiet at the absence of value statements that focussed on their individual welfare. There was a firm understanding that a correlation existed between the institution’s management practices, structures and systems and staff motivation, morale and healthy work relationships. The terms that were repeatedly mentioned were respect and collegiality.

It was decided to cascade down discussions about the addition of an additional value statement that captured the essence of what was needed and how they might define such a value statement. Each administrative unit and faculty managed their own process for doing this through communication channels appropriate to them.

Responses were gathered and collated into actual statements, then returned to the different groups for feedback. Further refinement ensued and the ‘short list’ value statements were presented to the university at an open forum. A single value statement was eventually agreed on and incorporated into the university’s formal shared purpose.

Respect and collegiality

Of course, this only marked the end of the initial phase of the process. Indications of a culture makeover starting to take place necessitates the values of respect and collegiality to be reflected in all aspects of how individuals within the university relate to each other.

This is the incredibly challenging part of real culture change. It takes leadership at multiple levels and the establishment of networks of people who act as role models for these behaviours.

It means holding individuals accountable for contradictory behaviour and communicating and reinforcing behaviours consistent with the expected endorsed values. Ultimately, all of it takes time, perseverance and commitment.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.