Frontline Intelligence: HR Consulting - Transforming performance

by 21 Nov 2012

Ed Hurst writes that organisations also hold personalities, and this personality can influence performance and culture.

Almost every organisation has initiatives based on the ‘employee experience’ – from Employee Engagement surveys that enhance performance by understanding what engages our people, to defining our ‘employment brand’ and creating formal Employee Value Propositions (EVP’s). These are all valuable things to do because they allow us to understand precisely what it is like to work for our organisation. This enables us not only to make that experience more positive and fruitful, but also to attract the right people.

All of these approaches begin by describing what an organisation is like. But too often, despite ‘doing the right thing’, such projects can still fail to transform outcomes in the way we want. In conjunction with our clients, we have been looking at why this is.

One thing these approaches have in common is they are based on asking the ‘what question’ rather than the ‘why question’. In other words, they describe, at a highly visible and practical level, what it is that organisations are like. However, these organisational behaviours/practices are all expressions of the deeper culture and values that make organisations who they are. Regardless of how hard we try, if we seek to move things forward simply by focusing on superficial actions, the same culture tends to reassert itself.

This explains why so many laudable initiatives fail – and why so many people are cynical about change.

In much the same way that people’s behaviour is underpinned by their personalities, if we want to understand and enhance how organisations operate, we need to look more deeply than surface-level actions and see what lies beneath – culture.

Organisational culture assessment is far from new, of course – it has a long history. But what is new is the ability to understand culture in much the same terms as individual personality.

This is delivering impressive results for a range of organisations, enabling practical solutions to be delivered much more effectively. One such approach is based on the work of Carol Pearson Ph.D., director of the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership and professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Maryland. Her work has taken the traits exhibited by organisations, rolling them into different ‘archetypes’ that can be easily identified, discussed and leveraged by management. In short, this approach provides an accessible and robust way of assisting organisations to understand and address the power and pitfalls of their cultures.

This is of tremendous help in driving forward business performance. There is compelling evidence that organisations that actively manage their culture consistently, achieve better outcomes in terms of revenue, net income, stock price and customer service. It is also of paramount importance when managing mergers and acquisitions.

We can establish many of the rational facts about an organisation quite easily – and these make up the bare bones of a culture. The ‘emotional truths’ (the unspoken values, beliefs and customs) allow us to go much deeper – but still don’t hold the full picture. It is only by delving into the organisation’s personality in a much more rigorous way (by defining the ‘archetypes’ of the organisation’s underlying personality) that we can establish what culture is really about.

Space prevents a full discussion of the archetype model itself, but each archetype is associated with different values, strengths, weaknesses and traps. For example, an ‘Explorer’ organisation values individuality, independence, new experiences, growth and change. This tends to be associated with being at the cutting edge, staying current in terms of customer needs and provides a great environment for ‘self-starters’; but it also tends to lead to chaos and can abandon employees who do not take the initiative (but who, nonetheless, have much to offer). If such an organisation tries to introduce surface initiatives to change these ways of thinking, they are likely to be overwhelmed; but understanding this cultural archetype makes solutions much more feasible.

This is merely one example of the benefits of understanding organisations in these terms and also shows one of the other features of such cultural work – each instance is unique and can only be moved forwards with sensitive and effective leadership.

Once this approach is fully embedded into how we think, it becomes possible to hire/ promote/develop people, based on cultural fit. It becomes possible to create an employment brand that truly reflects what it is like to work somewhere (so suddenly you find yourself with lots of people who like the way you operate). It becomes easier to create strategies that will truly ‘bite’ rather than missing the target. Internal communications can appeal in just the right way. In short, a wide variety of ways become available to optimise performance and maximise the employee experience.


About the author

Ed Hurst is Managing Director at Kenexa Australia. Contact: Phone (03) 9602 3899 or email


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