If you are a North American, you may be unfamiliar with the term parapet. The expression ‘put your head over the parapet’ is used to describe being brave enough to state an opinion that might upset someone. I learned a different version of this expression while conducting interviews about changing the organizational culture in a UK-based multinational company. The phase was: ‘Do not raise your head above the parapet’.
This reference to a parapet – a low protective wall at the edge of a balcony, roof, or bridge – is relevant because it alludes to how a company’s culture can either provide support and encouragement for growth, or hold it back. For this company, the perception of the employees was that the leadership commitment to culture was holding them back.
Case Study: UK Multinational Company Culture
I was brought in by the CEO who was critical of his company’s organizational culture and said that he wanted to change it. After meeting with the CEO, I conducted a number of interviews with employees in different positions at various locations. One of the questions I asked was, “Give me a phrase or word which best describes the culture here.” The most frequent answer was, “Don’t raise your head above the parapet”. The first couple of times I heard this phrase I would ask for more explanation. Invariably, the replies involved the punitive nature of the executives’ actions, along with the comment “Don’t stick your head up or you will get shot”.
File source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:York_city_walls_from_Micklegate_Bar_(6).JPGtraditional parapet in a European castle
Actual vs. Stated Values
Organizational culture is the manifestation of an organization’s actual values. These are the values which are displayed and reinforced daily. Employees pay much more attention to the actual values, not the nice words printed on posters. Employees will echo to disregard what we say our values are, and just consider what happens.
Organizational culture matters because it tells employees how to be successful and what not to do. In the example described above, the message from the culture was “do your job and don’t challenge or state an opinion which might upset someone”. A common expression employees use for this is “We are told to check our brains at the door”. Not very inspiring, right?
Further, this type of organizational culture is reflective of a command and control style of management in which employees are expected to do only as they are told. The implicit assumption is that the managers and supervisors know best how the work is to be performed.
While this may appear logical, it’s often not accurate. Usually, those who are doing the jobs best understand how to improve the work. In this case of the UK company, the supervisors and managers were dealing with an unacceptably high level of errors in processing customer materials. These errors were damaging the brand, giving ammunition to competitors and increasing operating costs due to required rework. The management’s assumption was that the answer was threats and punitive consequences. This approach had been tried and, over time, the problem was becoming worse rather than better. Yet, even with their own data saying this approach was clearly not working, the practice continued. The approach to improve performance was being thwarted by management techniques and the organizational culture.
Ironically, in the office where I was conducting some of the interviews there was a large poster on the wall which stated the organization’s values. The stated values were so different from what was being described by the employees. Finally, I asked about the poster. A high level manager said, “Oh that? It is from a program started by XXXX. He got fired and the whole thing stopped. We have just not bothered to take the posters down.”
Culture Supports or Stunts
Organizational culture will either support the successful execution of growth strategies or it will stunt them. It’s up to leadership commitment. By definition most growth strategies imply doing some things differently, since there is little reason to expect growth to occur absent change. Further, growth which creates substantial value and is sustainable over time will undoubtedly involve substantial change.
So what is going to be? When your people speak up, will you listen and encourage them and foster growth, or shoot them down? It is your choice, but just remember that the culture that your leadership commitment reinforces, might just be the culture that is holding you back.
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