Culture as Catalyst



“We’ve got so many things that we are responding to, that we can forget that our culture not only impacts our efficiencies, but also how we support each other and our teams to support our clients. Our culture makes everything else work!” - Mark Kulinski, Chief Executive, Community living Australia.


I have the great good fortune to love what I do. A few weeks ago I facilitated a two day workshop for Community Living Australia, a South Australian disability service provider. This was the second stage in a culture program that results in a Culture Action Plan.


There is never a good time to take 25 people out of the business for two days. But the Chief Executive got it. He understood that culture is the catalyst that “makes everything else work.” (For the full interview click here)


On face value, it seems obvious. If your employees feel heard, valued and supported, then internal communication is going to be easier. Relationships are going to be easier. Change is going to be easier. Innovation is going to be easier.


The organisational structure can align more easily around growth opportunities - because your team ‘gets it’. Your vision is their vision. Your mission is their mission.


But if all this seems so obvious, why do we still measure culture by pulse surveys or staff engagement surveys with little regard to the actual response rate? Why is culture so often just the responsibility of the People & Culture department?


In the Australian disability sector these questions become even more relevant when you consider a new study of 2,341 disability workers released two weeks ago.


The study, ‘Safeguarding in Australia’s new disability markets: Frontline workers’ perspectives’ found “precarious employment, under-resourcing and poor quality relationships between managers and staff.”


More disturbingly, the report showed that, “almost half of frontline disability workers were aware of harms affecting clients in the past year and three in five felt their employers’ safety and incident reporting protocols were inadequate.” [1] (This report should be mandatory reading for every Board member in the Australian disability sector.)


An earlier study by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, ‘Precarity and Job Instability on the Frontlines of NDIS Support Work September 2020[2]) found significant stress, instability and a lack of essential training and support for frontline workers.


It’s not just frontline workers facing significant, unsustainable work stress. In the course of my research for my book, Workplace Culture & the NDIS, I found that the three roles under the most stress in traditional disability business model were the roles of frontline support worker, team leader and CEO.


In a sector dominated by traditional providers with legacy business models, organisational structure is often a key culture blocker, creating overly complicated processes and resulting in a lack of time for essential safety and incident reporting and on-the-job training.


How we think about workplace culture must change


From 13 years’ of first-hand experience of a sector undergoing deep and total disruption, I’ve come to the belief that we need to change the way we think about workplace culture and see it as the only viable ‘whole of organisation’ catalyst for positive, sustainable change.


My favourite definition of marketing comes from Peter Drucker (bear with me, this is relevant): “Marketing is so basic that it cannot be considered a separate function. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view.”


A similar definition could apply to culture: Culture is so basic that it cannot be considered a separate function. It is the whole business seen from the employee’s point of view.”


When you define culture in this more holistic way, two things happen:

  1. The ‘culture blockers’ in your organisation become immediately obvious.

  2. A range of levers for building a stronger, more values based culture become apparent.

The ‘whole of organisation’ Culture Action Plan


A Culture Action Plan is built on this ‘whole-of-organisation’ approach to culture. It is developed in collaboration with your team and goes beyond the traditional ‘Staff Engagement Strategy’ to identify the key culture blockers across the entire organisation.


Using the organisation’s mission and vision as the starting point and the values as the ‘lens’ (or decision making criteria) it then identifies the obvious, practical steps to address those blocks over the long term.


Authentic, values driven culture change has nothing to do with rhetoric and everything to do with the practical, day to day interactions and behaviours of teams.


Culture is not a box to be ticked. It is never done; it’s never ‘sorted’. But it is the only catalyst that “makes everything else work.”


References:

[1] Natasha Cortis, Georgia Van Toorn (2021). Safeguarding in Australia’s new disability markets: Frontline workers’perspectives. Retrieved from Safeguarding in Australia’s new disability markets: Frontline workers’ perspectives - Natasha Cortis, Georgia Van Toorn, 2021 (sagepub.com)

[2] Donna Baines, Fiona Macdonald, Jim Stanford, Jessie Moore (2019). Precarity and job instability on the frontlines of NDIS support work. Retrieved from Analysis and Policy Observatory Website: https://apo.org.au/node/268796