The speed of innovation, the diversity of customers, the global market for talent, and the values of the Millennial workforce all demand different ways of working. Helene Vermaak, Director at The Human Edge – innovators in corporate training and organisational performance – says that in the past, leaders built organisations that nurtured obedience and compliance. “Today’s marketplace and workforce requires a very different cultural approach.”
“Today’s organisations are caught in an identity crisis. In years past, you could tell you were looking at a company because it operated from a fortress-like building. You knew who the employees were because they sported titles, dressed similarly, and could be located on org charts. That world is rapidly disappearing,” says Vermaak.
Ultimately, Vermaak says that the performance of an organisation is measured by its ability to do two things: execute and innovate. “A business must execute flawlessly on today’s mission. And it must innovate consistently to remain relevant tomorrow.” In decades past, organisations were optimised for execution. Tall hierarchies which were designed to produce predictable results limited innovation—but not so much as to matter. Since product life cycles were often measured in decades, this “plan-organise-control” design produced acceptable levels of innovation.
“It created cultures that valued compliance more than self-direction and loyalty more than candour—and in the competitive landscape of the time, it worked. Everyone was happy. But the landscape has changed. While today’s marketplaces and customers continue to expect flawless execution of products and services, they also expect exponentially escalated levels of innovation,” says Vermaak.
Vermaak references insights from international partner Vitalsmarts. “Through working with thousands of organisations and conducting numerous research studies into cultural norms that support high-performance teams – Vitalsmarts has divided the norms – or unspoken rules that govern teams into two components: Open Dialogue and Universal Accountability.”
Open Dialogue: Team members can raise concerns and questions to anyone about anything—when the purpose is to improve performance.
Universal Accountability: Team members hold each other accountable, regardless of role or position.
“Importantly, Psychological Safety is also identified as a pre-condition for speaking up and holding others accountable,” says Vermaak. “These findings support the changing world of work where companies pursue an ad hoc team design, adopt a less hierarchical structure and more peer-based accountability,” says Vermaak. “Hierarchies are slow. Teams are faster, but they are only effective once the right norms are established. Historically, norms could evolve and strengthen over decades. Today’s transitory teams demand leaders who can rapidly foster dialogue, accountability, and safety.”
So how do these norms fail? Too often, individuals are not accustomed to operating in a culture that demands taking risks and holding others accountable. If these cultural norms don’t take root, any number of changes to the organisation chart will fail.
Vermaak illustrates the scenario, “Team members seem to embrace their greater empowerment, and so do their leaders—until they encounter their first sensitive, high-stakes, politically-risky situation. Often, it’s a situation where the team is at odds with its manager, or where team members need to hold a leader, a peer, or a customer to account. In these moments, you see the concern for safety win out over performance. Team members stay silent or give in, despite their conviction that doing so will undermine performance. And this trade-off becomes the cultural norm.
“Candour is the only path to sustained team excellence. And psychological safety is the precondition for candour. The research literature uses the term “psychological safety” to describe the comfort level required before people will ask for help, admit errors, and discuss problems. It’s not surprising that psychological safety is essential for teams and teams-of-teams to function,” says Vermaak.