Doing things differently round here

6th August 2014


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  • Employee engagement ,
  • Engagement


Deirdre Gorman

In the second of her two-part series, Penny Walker finds out how to use an existing culture to support change

The first part of this series looked at what organisational culture is, how to spot it and why it is significant to successfully meeting organisational sustainability goals. So how can the existing culture be harnessed to help achieve such targets? Text book definitions of organisational culture tend to be generic, and it can be hard to properly understand it without examples.

TUI Travel’s retail division

TUI Travel provides an example of where sustainability professionals have focused on organisational culture to support change. The company, which owns the brands First Choice and Thomson, has made good progress in its sustainability journey. But sustainability planning and communications manager Rosie Bristow says the firm faced challenges when it came to engaging colleagues in its retail operations on communicating its “greener and fairer” holidays to customers.

TUI Travel’s sustainability team needed to look through “new eyes” at the retail department and adapt the approach to fit the culture. Bristow highlights some significant cultural features in the retail department. For example, staff are used to having clear performance targets and regular feedback. Also, opportunities for promotion are competitive, so the chance to take part in recognised professional development is highly valued.

Harnessing this enthusiasm for professional development, TUI Travel’s sustainability team worked with senior retail management to appoint an up-and-coming regional manager to refresh the methods on implementing sustainability in the department. Presented as a professional development project and sponsored by a retail leader, the project acquired visibility and credibility. Having got an insider’s view on what would be motivating and culturally significant to retail colleagues, the sustainability team took forward its work.

“Retail people are brilliant at selling what they understand to colleagues and to customers. So we focused one of our regular educational trips on sustainability. Retail staff love these trips, which are high-profile and sought-after,” says Bristow. The fact-finding mission to Turkey included examining how hotels were reducing their direct environmental impacts, visiting a sustainable food project part-funded by customers’ donations and a stop-over at a turtle rescue centre.

Cultural savvy also helped inform the way senior managers chose the sustainability champions for retail’s 28 regions: they preferred to make appointments rather than rely on volunteers as proof that they valued the role and averted any chance that it gained a reputation as an add-on. Targets were set for customer donations, which fitted well with the target-focused way that retail staff were already working. And shops’ sustainability performance was benchmarked by mystery shoppers, a method used to check other aspects of employees’ work and one recognised as a valuable tool by the 700-plus shop managers.

Bristow thinks that the key aspect of the retail culture to which TUI Travel has tied its sustainability work is the value placed on clearly stated and structured expectations: in this case, asking for small donations for the World Care Fund from each holiday sold and explaining greener and fairer holidays to customers. “We have used the ways they normally learn and the fact that they are ‘up for it’ once they understand what they are being asked to sell,” she says.

Other cultures, other solutions

Much as the retail operations at TUI Travel have their own culture, every other organisation will have its own way of doing things and its own unique characteristics, and these need to be harnessed to bring about change or achieve an objective. If engaging staff depends on the prospect of finding solutions to difficult problems, that possibility needs to be exploited. Some organisations work at tremendous speed. One I know shows this by having very short meetings focused on decision-making. If you cannot make the meeting, you send a deputy – and it is your lookout if you do not.

In many organisations, it is obvious who the heroes are – that is, the types of people who are celebrated for their approach. The traits that are valued will vary from organisation to organisation. It might be aggression, wisdom, the ability to bring out the best in any team, bravado, a positive disposition or a record of success.

Bringing these individuals onside and giving them responsibility for the big sustainability project is a valuable way to show that it is genuinely important to the organisation and encourages buy-in by others.

Good cultures, bad cultures?

There is a lot of debate about whether some kinds of organisational culture are more suited to sustainability than others. Edgar Schein, author of Organisational culture and leadership, sees “learning cultures” as fundamental to long-term success in a turbulent world, with its unknown technical, economic, political and societal responses. Learning cultures assume that it is a good thing to be a proactive problem-solver, rather than passively accepting the way the world is.

Organisations with a commitment to finding the truth through inquiry among a diversity of perspectives will do better than those that rely on any one source or method. Those that assume they already know and just have to browbeat or educate everyone else will do worst of all.

Experimentation and allowing time to gather evidential proof are critical – do not expect instant success or even instant clear feedback, especially when you are trying to make a difference in the system of which the organisation is a part.

So, some organisational cultures are, in Schein’s view, inherently weaker than others. It seems likely that cultures characterised by short-term, risk-averse or cynical assumptions will be less fruitful ground for the sustainability practitioner. They will have more success by tailoring their approach to the existing culture than by not doing so, but the journey will be hard.

Making a start

Begin with the sustainability goals that make most sense for your organisation. When planning your strategy for achieving these objectives, take account of the existing culture by identifying:

  • what already works, and what the organisation is good at and proud of;
  • who the heroes are – the part of the organisation they work in, the kind of people they are;
  • what people pay attention to, what is discussed in important meetings, what the boss always asks;
  • what is “taken as read” about how things are; and
  • how people explain why goals have not been met.

If, after some time, it turns out the plan is not working as you would like, enquire into why. Schein’s book suggests a 10-step process of cultural assessment, while William Bridges includes a survey tool in his book, The character of organisations. If the underlying culture itself needs to change in order to meet the sustainability goals, you need to take this to the top. Organisational culture change can succeed only with the wholehearted commitment from the leadership. And sustainability practitioners will win leadership support only if the sustainability goals are seen as critical to organisational success.

More likely you will discover some aspects of the current culture that can help: capitalise on those existing strengths and harness them to meet the sustainability goals. And, for the aspects that are weak or not valued in the organisation’s culture, avoid relying on them or find ways to compensate for them.

Organisational culture – in summary
What is it? The pattern of shared assumptions about basic truths, which influence how people see the world and their organisation’s relationship with it. It consists of commonly held values, attitudes and beliefs, and specific symbols and systems.
How can you spot it? Surveys (for example, William Bridges’ organisational character index); workshops (such as Edgar Schein’s culture assessment process); recognising signals, such as what it takes to “belong”, why someone is considered a “hero” or an “outsider”, and what people pay attention to.
Why is it significant? It is the character of the organisation and why it operates in a particular way – your sustainability journey will be much smoother if it goes with the grain, and may be impossible otherwise.


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