How to turn organisational values into workplace culture through observation

There’s what people say they will do and then there’s what they actually do.

The difference between intention and reality can be pretty massive. In terms of workplace culture turning good intention into lived reality can be a bit of a challenge.

So many workplaces say all the right things, but how many of them actually do those things. As I’ve talked about before honesty and accountability are important aspects of a healthy workplace culture. And now I’m going to add another one – observation. Or in other words the art of active seeing and how that can be a great way to open the doors to positive cultural change in the workplace. 

Last week I facilitated a workshop that went in a different direction to what I had anticipated. And by ‘observing’ how it was going off-track, I was able to see the ‘actual’ as opposed to ‘perceived’ workplace culture. It was a gift. By sharing my observations with real-time experience, the conversation became a lot more meaningful and impactful.

What is observation?

Observation is more than just seeing something. Instead it’s watching things with an active and curious mind, asking what is happening? Why? And even, how is it happening?

Now let’s be clear, observing your staff doesn’t mean spying on them. It doesn’t mean listening in on private conservations or loitering around the lunch room.

It means being actively aware of how people interact in your workplace and mentally connecting that behaviour to your organisation’s values. 

It means learning to see without prejudice, without fear or favour. And it’s harder to do than you might think.

Why is active observation important in the workplace?

The workshop I spoke about above is a great example of the power of active observation.

I was there to explore, challenge and strengthen the workplace culture and we began with a group discussion on what the organisation’score values were. Most importantly we talked about how those values looked and felt, or were experienced, by participants.

The values were fairly generic but important ones: 

·     Respect

·     Honesty

·     Teamwork

·     Communication

Participants were engaged, enthusiastic and most importantlythere was clear consensus on what the organisation’s core values meant.

I thought, great. Too easy. Time to get them on their feetand working in small groups. So, I set a group task with the instructions “gooff and work on this together, wherever you want and report back in 15minutes.”

That’s when things got really interesting.

Instead of doing what I expected – going out and finding aspace and working together – most of the people disappeared in differentdirections. I saw one head out the building, another head to the lunch room and2 stayed behind checking their mobile phones.

I observed for a good 5 minutes. I could see some chatting. Icould see some checking their emails, phones, but it was difficult to observeany consistent group work.

Eventually I asked one of the people left in the room:

“What’s going on? Where are your team?”

“Dunno, probably having a smoke or coffee”

“Are you going to go and find them?”

“Don’t know where they are”

My initial reaction was perplexity. How could the understandingof the values of communication, teamwork, honesty and respect be so differentto the actual behaviour?

Observation as a reality check

And that’s when I had a moment of significance. Despite the factthat we were all saying we were clear on the task at hand, what I observedshowed me that we weren’t. My observation gave me a reality check.

Everyone returned to the room smiling and enthusiastic. Myinitial plan was to let all the groups present but my observations had providedme with such a gift that I changed tack.

I simply said “Can I share with you what I just observed?And can we as a group unpack it?”

The group’s immediate response was deflection. I hadn’t said that they couldn’t take a break. I hadn’t explicitly set out what I wanted them to do. My directions were vague and open to interpretation. I hadn’t come and directed them.

Everyone and every workplace has different communication styles. The dominant culture of this workplace was one of compliance and direction. There was a set way to do things and doing things right was important.

My approach was more intuitive, allowing for self-direction and self-determination aiming to generate a safe and creative environment. 

These two very different world views ended up with me standing perplexed and them feeling like my instructions were so vague as to be ignored. There was no disrespect intended.

It gave me a huge insight into the actual culture of the workplace – one that wasn’t articulated in the organisation’s values. The overriding group behaviour of direction and compliance was stronger than the individual values. It trumped them so to speak.

And my experience provided the perfect platform to discuss the workplace culture in an open, honest and inquisitive way.

Changing what is ‘said’ into what is ‘done’

Organisation values are important. They act as a kind of moral compass that guides all employees towards the right decision and outcomes. But, as I experienced last week, words are only words until put into practise.

By understanding the workplace culture, we could re-frame the organisation values in a more meaningful way. 

The business had an important culture of compliance and following directions. It ensured they were able to consistently and safely deliver a quality product. It also meant that people were unlikely to actively question instructions or to share ideas within the workforce.

Observation is the art of actually seeing what is happening right in front of you. It sounds obvious, but so many of us ignore what we see, or don’t pay enough attention to what people are doing and how they are doing it.

It allows us to see beyond what we ‘think’ is happening to what actually ‘is’ happening. The true power of observation is when we connect the dots between the theory and the practise.

Next time something doesn’t go quite to plan, particularly within the workplace, don’t just ask yourself what happened but instead ask yourself what did you observe?

Do you need help aligning your workplace culture with your organisation values? Are other workplace issues taking you away from your core business? To discuss this or other workplace challenges, please feel free to get in touch with us.

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