30 September 2013

Organizational culture matters

Just before the current semester began, I received a phone call from a nursing professor exuding delight about her new faculty appointment. In her enthusiasm and joy, she exclaimed, “I just accepted the most remarkable faculty position. The school has a civility statement, a code for respectful behavior and interactions, and, most of all, members of the campus community actually live by their code of civility and shared values. I can hardly wait to get started!”

I was delighted for my friend and for the students who will reap the benefits of such a rich, engaged teaching-learning environment. After congratulating her, I asked, “What courses will you be teaching?” I laughed out loud when she responded, “Who cares? I’m just so excited to be part of such an incredible experience. I am happy to teach anything!”

Our conversation validated one of my foundational beliefs about workplaces—that culture trumps everything. In other words, no matter how wonderful one’s job description, it pales if the workplace is unhealthy, toxic, or uncivil. It is important for workplaces to have a vision and mission statement, with explicit reference to civility and respect. If an organization lacks such a reference, it is unlikely it will live by these essential values. There must be an established and reciprocal trust between the leaders and all members of the organization—including students, if it’s an educational environment. Each member must be viewed as an asset and appreciated for the value he or she brings to the workplace.

Healthy workplaces embody emotional safety, and they create and encourage “safe spaces” for dialogue and meaningful conversation. Such organizations recruit the best and the brightest and, more importantly, make every effort to retain them. Healthy workplaces exude high morale, job satisfaction, collegiality, and high-performing teamwork. Respectful communication and shared decision-making is evident. In healthy organizations, trust is the glue that holds it together, civility its lifeblood, and leadership at all levels the heart that pumps it throughout the organization.

Often, I hear people say that lack of civility and organizational trust is not necessarily a problem if it involves only one or two individuals within the organization. I beg to differ. Think about it this way: If multiple small incisions occur in an organism, it will eventually bleed out, causing its demise. The same is true for organizations. Even if there are only one or two toxic members in the organization, the results can be devastating and far-reaching.

And what if the one or two uncivil individuals hold formal leadership positions and their uncivil acts include an abuse of power? Such behavior can drastically change the organizational culture and have a serious impact on people and the bottom line. According to Porath and Pearson (2013), managers of Fortune 1000 firms spend 13 percent of their time—the equivalent of seven weeks a year—dealing with the aftermath of incivility. In some cases, the financial cost can be ruinous.

So what can we do to create cultures of civility? Here are a few ideas.

First, each member of the organization, including leaders, needs to take a candid and thoughtful look in the mirror, making an honest and accurate inventory of how well he or she is behaving and interacting with others in the organization. This assessment includes asking for candid feedback from colleagues, so each member can get a reality check on how he or she is coming across.

Positive and professional role-modeling is also essential to creating and sustaining cultures of civility. Knowing how to effectively communicate and negotiate conflict are essential skills that must be practiced, honed, and utilized. Too often, we avoid addressing issues that matter, thinking that “nothing will change” or that, in doing so, we might make matters worse. Or we simply don’t believe we have the skills needed to successfully address the situation. We need to change our mind-set, harness our courage to learn, and utilize the skills needed to promote a healthy workplace.

However, stepping up, communicating, and addressing conflict are best accomplished in organizations that embrace civility, respect, and transparency. Thus, establishing unambiguous vision and mission statements, statements of shared values, and co-creating behavioral and organizational norms are foundational to healthy workplaces. Positive behavior needs to be reinforced and celebrated. Being recognized for civility and collegiality can be highly motivating and have a significant impact on morale and job satisfaction. Promoting and rewarding interprofessional teamwork and collaborative initiatives can also enhance job fulfillment and deepen esprit de corps.

Unfortunately, in some cases, despite attempts to respectfully address issues of concern and effect positive organizational change, such efforts may fall short—or fall upon deaf ears. When that happens, we need to carefully reflect on the situation and decide whether we will stay in an uncivil workplace or move on.

On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to be working in a civil, healthy workplace, celebrate and share the good news. Keep up the great work, and tell about your experiences and strategies so others can gain from your successes. Like the nursing professor who excitedly told me about her new job, each of us deserves a wonderful place to work.

Porath, C., & Pearson, C. (2013, Jan.-Feb.). The price of incivility: Lack of respect hurts morale and the bottom line. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility/

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.