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Shaping culture through questions

By IoD
18 Sep 2019
read time
5 min to read
Shaping culture through questions

Boardroom August/ September 2019 issue

Philip Carden says managers can improve organisational culture by asking questions. And acknowledging that the answers matter.

The former head of the consulting engineering team at Bell Labs is not talking about culture surveys and measurement in the traditional sense. He wants businesses to have regular, tracked and open (not anonymous) conversations about life in the workplace.

With his brother Mike, he has founded Joyous, a company that offers an innovative approach to measuring culture, improving staff wellbeing in the workplace and managing the risk of misconduct.

It’s a software product based around regular question-and-answer sessions – conducted digitally – in which staff and managers express candid views on a topic of the moment. It also allows staff to chat about the things that are impacting them at work and for managers to respond.

By making feedback a regular habit, rather than an annual event, Joyous aims to make organisational culture more transparent, easier to monitor, and to enable leaders to respond to issues in a timely manner. With staff the ultimate beneficiaries as workplace culture improves.

Culture and conduct

“You are trying to improve the state of the organisation – in terms of both culture and conduct - over time,” Carden says.

What differentiates his idea from many traditional culture and conduct monitoring mechanisms is that Joyous assumes all feedback is open and transparent. This has implications for the type of feedback the approach is suitable for.

“You need to avoid regular feedback that is about leadership quality – you are not going to ask about people – but you can ask more specifically about their experience at work.”

That could be questions about role clarity, clarity of objectives, whether they have the tools to do their job, their sense of fairness and inclusion, or whether they feel they are recognised fairly.

“In terms of wellbeing, it could be if they know where to find support, whether they have a reasonable work-life balance.

“These are all things that people leaders have influence over – so if there is negative feedback in those areas, there is something they can do about it.”

One of the interesting things about implementing an open feedback system is that questions designed to measure culture start to shape how people think and act, he says. In essence, the questions themselves become a management tool.

“If you are asking questions about a particular topic, it reminds people leaders that the area is important and triggers them to think about it. It happens on multiple levels. The culture shaping power of questions… people often think they are just targeted at staff.”

Transparency can't fix everything

Leadership quality is outside the scope of the Joyous model. It’s not something people leaders can address on behalf of their teams and not a suitable topic for open conversation. Organisations will need another – and probably anonymous – system for dealing with issues in that area.

Serious misconduct is also unlikely to be a suitable topic. This could include harassment, bullying, misconduct or corruption.

“In those cases you have real issues of psychological safety and in those cases it is not always reasonable to have that feedback visible to people’s direct leaders. They [the direct leaders] might be the ones that are involved.”

Carden advocates giving control of feedback on serious misconduct issues to employees.

“Let them have control over how their feedback is handled, who it goes to. We call that directed feedback. You choose who that feedback goes to.”

Depending on the systems in the organisation, that might be the chief executive or even someone on the board, he says.

"By making feedback a regular habit, rather than an annual event, Joyous aims to make organisational culture more transparent, easier to monitor, and to enable leaders to respond to issues in a timely manner."

Joyous’s software solution works directly on people’s mobiles, tablets or computers – meaning staff in the field can contribute just as easily as staff in the office.

Inclusion and equal weight

One of the great advantages of the Joyous system is that it can be rolled out across distributed workforces, or shift-based environments where staff may not always be overseen by the same manager.

Joyous’s software solution works directly on people’s mobiles, tablets or computers – meaning staff in the field can contribute just as easily as staff in the office. Including all staff in the conversation is the goal, “so your voice is not louder because you work at head office and have conversations around the water cooler,” Carden says.

The system can even be extended to subcontractors – something that may have alerted the Chorus board to irregularities in its contract workforce sooner (see “Migrant exploitation”, page 16).

“At a governance level, you are increasingly seeing expectations of suppliers that cross subcontractor boundaries. If you think about that as a governance issue, how do you include subcontractors in your feedback loop? How do systems manage to cross organisational boundaries?

“Part of what gets in the way of including subcontractors in your feedback loop are the operational complexities of getting people set up within large organisations. But technology has got to point where it is relatively simple to do that in a secure way. We put a lot of focus on the fact that there is no set up for anybody – no password, no app on your phone. The act of answering a message takes care of the security credentials and launches the web app. This is the modern way of doing messageinitiated feedback. The result is the ability to “include the broad set of people that are involved in your company’s conduct”, Carden says.

Mental health and wellbeing

One of the challenges with wellbeing, Carden says, is it can be quite a vague concept to people leaders in an organisation.

“So you have to make it more digestible. We focus primarily on the parts of mental health and wellbeing that are affected by work. You can divide that up into areas that are much more straightforward for people leaders to understand.

“Support: whether people have access to support. Is there someone who cares about them and do they know where to go if they have a problem.

“Security: both physical safety and mental security – feeling physically safe but also confident about your future.

“Workload and work life balance: that’s where you are really getting into stress that is a function of having too much work to do relative to the number of hours in the day.”

Seeing into your organisation

In a typical organisation, your manager would see your feedback and then their manager and on up the hierarchy.

“The most important thing is that people leaders respond to feedback. There is a tendency to respond to negative feedback, but it’s important to respond to all feedback.”

Having an ongoing culture conversation captures data which can then be assessed to compare differences between teams or locations, or to uncover areas of a business which a leading or lagging in one cultural aspect or another.

"The system will generate dashboards, heatmaps or other forms of analytics and it is possible to drill all the way down to an original response when seeming more information on a particular finding – directly from a board report, if that is warranted."

“If you are using modern software the filters can be applied to the data. It becomes very easy to navigate through a lot of feedback.”

But it is the process of asking and answering questions that has the most immediate inpact on culture, he says.

“Where technology is today, you have the ability to actually impact both culture and conduct with every interaction.”

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