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Hospitals have MRSA, businesses have organisational cultures

If you have ever worked in a health-care environment, you may be aware that one of the things that is feared most is patients who obtain a nosocomial infection. This infection occurs when someone comes into hospital with one problem, and because of the conditions within the facility, ends up with something else as well. Whilst nosocomial infections are not the norm (thankfully), they do occur. And not just in health-care facilities.

The business version of a nosocomial infection occurs when a new employee is hired and begins working. Most new employees are hired because they have a skill-set or level of competency that an organisation needs. But they also bring with them a certain level of work ethic, a sense of energy and contribution, and a personal belief in the 'way to get things done'.

Quote�They lose their energy and slowly evolve into one of 'them'.�End Quote

And after a relatively short period of time they discover that, whilst the company may need their skills and competency, there might be a mis-match regarding their work ethic and the way they believe that things should get done. When this occurs, they lose their energy to contribute and slowly evolve into one of 'them'.

This is an interesting dynamic, and is usually foretold by comments such as, 'you are new here, you don't understand how we do things'; and 'well that may have worked where you came from, but here, we have our own culture.' Both comments are fair, and probably true in most cases. But the fact that they are expressed can be a signal that company is mired in doing things their way and not too interested in learning what could be, a better, more effective way to do things.


I have seen this happen over and over again. I know of one employer who had decided to hire from the outside for a relatively senior position, with the logic that they needed to bring in new expertise, an external view, and different ways to make decisions. It didn't take too long for the 'organisation' to crank up their defence mechanisms to the 'breath of fresh air'. The new recruit sought out other managers who had been brought in for the same stated reasons, to see how they had dealt with the resistance. What he found out was startling.

Quote�The CEO told him to 'just calm down and fit in.' Within a year, he left.�End Quote

Most of the previous new senior recruits had met the same resistance. They said that they realised that what they were up against was too powerful to overcome, and defaulted into the existing company ways. They had been infected with a company culture that sapped their ability and willingness to demonstrate what they had been hired to do.

He then went to the CEO and expressed his concerns and mapped out a strategy to help the culture shift. After all, he had been hired to bring in new skills, competency, and an external view; and because of the resistance, he wasn't able to demonstrate this. It was then that the man found out what he was really up against - when the CEO told him to 'just calm down and fit in'. Within a year, the new person was so frustrated, he left.

Easy choice

The business version of a nosocomial infection happens in organisations from all sectors; in large companies, and small and medium enterprises. It manifests itself in meetings that go nowhere, in stalled initiatives, and in a culture that breeds organisational malaise and skilled incompetence.

There is a way to get past this, however. First, make sure that you have a clear mandate to do what you were hired to do. Ask about the organisational culture and how resistance to doing things in a new way will be received.

Quote�You can't change people; only create an environment in which they can change if they choose to.�End Quote

Second, learn how to be subtle. Too often, those that are brought into a new company environment come in full of unbridled energy. They come in with a mandate to do things differently and they try to thrust 'their way' onto others. This rarely works, and in fact, just creates an environment in which defence mechanisms crank up with equal force. The 'rule' is that you can't change people; only create an environment in which they can change if they choose to.

Don't try to force your way onto existing employees, but instead, offer alternatives. Ask questions like: 'what might happen if we tried...' or 'I saw something work that we might want to try.' Offering options to do things differently is more powerful (and more successful) than giving others the opportunity to just dig in to their existing ways.

Third, if given the opportunity, do what you know works. In many cases, this may fly in the face of 'the way' - but you might be able to enable others to buy into what you are saying. Yes, this may have risks associated with it, but in some cases, it is better to ask for forgiveness, than to ask for permission.

Fourth, be patient. Organisational cultures do not evolve overnight, and consequently, they will not evolve further in a short period of time. A culture that is locked into doing things 'the company way' is a function of a history of doing just that. But we all need to remember, that before the 'company way' was in existence, things probably got done somehow. Evolution is a function of time.

The choice is pretty easy - either help to create an environment in which an organisation can learn that there just might be a better way, or get out. Knowingly becoming infected seems like a poor option.

About the author

Dr James Rieley Dr James B Rieley is an advisor to senior leadership teams from all sectors. He has been recognised globally for his work on how to create environments in which organisations can realise their potential. He is the author of Gaming the System (FT/Prentice Hall, 2001); Plain Talk about Business Performance (Pen Press, 2004); Leadership (Hodder, 2006); and Strategy and Performance (Hodder, 2006); as well as writing a column for the Daily Telegraph on business effectiveness. He can be reached at jbrieley@rieley.com and www.rieley.com.

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