For all the possibilities in transformation, be it technical, infrastructure, or processes, it’s difficult to deliver sustainable change within a toxic environment.

Most people who’ve been in any type of leadership role know the adage about culture eating strategy for breakfast. With worker apathy at an all-time high, Australian business leaders face some significant challenges to foster engagement and inhibit toxic cultures while successfully delivering projects.

A recent Gallup report revealed that some 71% of Australia and New Zealand workers self-nominate as being disengaged within their workplace and not interested in sustaining any form of commitment to their employers.

It’s a sobering statistic and we have witnessed this disengagement in action through our project delivery travels and noted the impact it has on transforming a business. And in recent years, we’ve seen a level of disengagement that can foster toxicity among workers who can find themselves in oppressive, dysfunctional and unhealthy work environments that often protect the wrong people.

In the face of such high levels of disengagement, we need to ask: How can transformation be expected to succeed?

Delivery DNA is Vital to Success

In our experience, one thing has become crystal clear: The best strategy and execution approach to transforming an organisation will be a fruitless exercise if the culture within it doesn’t support change. Over the years, we’ve developed an expression that talks to an organisation’s environment: We call it Delivery DNA.

So what is a delivery DNA? Each organisation has its own way of getting things done and no two organisations are the same. An organisation’s ability to deliver transformation is impacted by its size, capacity and capabilities, technology, market position, and most importantly, its people and culture.

Culture is a key determinant of successful transformation. Let’s look at digital transformation for a moment. A business can change its technologies, its infrastructure, and its processes, but if the ‘human element’ isn’t factored in, addressed, and managed through periods of significant change, sustainable change can’t occur.  Technology adoption and innovation depend on how fast an organisation needs to transform but it’s unlikely to be successful if the organisation’s culture isn’t open, transparent, or accountable – from the top executives down to front-line employees.

The flipside is that when a culture is thriving and engaging its internal stakeholders – i.e. employees – innovation, technology adoption, and change tend to have a smoother ride.

It is very clear that culture is the most important enabler of transformation since ‘without people, tools won’t make any difference’.

Why are Employees so Disengaged?

The Gallup report identified a number of reasons that the global workforce is disengaged. In Australia, it identified old-school management practices, opaque hierarchies, lack of security in jobs, too frequent re-structures leading to change fatigue, a lack of loyalty, and challenges that permeate the organisations in obvious and less obvious ways as key contributors.

The sum of these parts is a poor ‘worker experience’. We use the term ‘worker’ very deliberately but we could also be so bold to use the term ‘resource’, which we feel actually sits at the heart of the problem.

Australia’s workforce is increasingly following the global trend of becoming ‘gig based’, creating a blend of permanent, part-time, and contingent workers that is quite unseen in times past. It suits an organisation seeking agility to scale or pare back as required and it also suits many of the workers who enjoy the benefits of taking on this type of engagement.

On paper, this can look like an ideal operating model, but as with any cohort, the ‘human element’ needs careful attention to understand the real dynamics of a mixed workforce. As workers are increasingly referred to as ‘resources, the implication is that our workers are now commodities used to produce outputs and are easily disposed of when no longer needed. We’ve yet to meet anyone who feels positive about being viewed as a commodity over being viewed as a valued contributor.

As we dig deeper into organisations with largely disengaged workers, what appears to be happening is that cultures have become so toxic that workers who join can unintentionally fall prey to adopting the culture of the environment to survive it. Or alternately they leave in search of a culture that values the skills and capabilities they can provide.

Left Unchecked, Toxic Behaviour can Have Devastating Consequences

In 1971, a famous social psychology project illustrated what happens when a toxic culture is allowed to fester if not thrive, focusing on the psychological effects of perceived power imbalances. Designed as a simulation study of prison life, the Stanford Prison Experiment was a planned two-week investigation during which a pseudo-prison was established in the basement of Stanford University.

It posed these questions: What happens when you put ‘good people’ in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil or does evil triumph? External observers were on hand to document what happened over the course of the experiment.

All of the participants were volunteers from healthy, intelligent, middle-class male students who were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners on the basis of a coin toss. The design of the experiment took into account the typical processes of transitioning prisoners into the system, subjecting them to humiliation, de-humanisation, anonymity, law enforcement, the assertion of authority, and physical punishment.

Even though it was a simulation, what happened during the experiment caused it to be brought to a halt as increasingly inhumane treatment and conditions began to take root. Both guards and prisoners had become their roles to such an extent that acclimatisation to the situation saw a range of toxic behaviours escalate. It demonstrated that left to their own devices in certain contexts, humans tend to adopt the behaviours around them to survive or exert power based on their role in the hierarchy.

While this was an extreme experiment, there are a lot of cues to take from the outcomes. The idea that workers acclimatise to what is going on around them, taking on the role within a situation they are placed in rather than pushing back or rising above it (or indeed, leaving it), could be a significant part of the reasons that so many of our toxic environments often go unchecked.

You Can’t Give What You Don’t Have

We have seen the consequences and realities of project failures that occur because of poor cultures (and we have the war wounds to prove it!). In our view, any organisation attempting to transform must start by taking an honest look at its culture and the extent to which it has the right foundations to support the change challenge that lies ahead. And while it can be incredibly difficult to do, sometimes it requires having experienced observers and independent perspectives that have the capability to shine light into all of its corners.

Having a clear and unbiased views of employee engagement, purposeful strategies to maximize it, a deliberate focus on employee experience (irrespective of permanent, part-time or gig) and the commitment to change the focus on its people from “resources” to value contributors might just go a long way to helping the transformation be successful.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose strategy and delivery for workforce engagement.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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State of the Global Workplace. (2017). 1st ed. [ebook] New York: Gallup, Inc, p.166. Available here.  [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...