Cultural Conversations: 360 feedback for organisations

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Feedback is a great way to uncover your organisation’s blindspots so that you don’t lose the best bits of your culture as you grow or during a reorganisation. Here’s our experience of running organisation-level 360 feedback – what we call cultural conversations – for several UK institutions.

You have heard of a 360 degree review for individuals – where an employee receives feedback on how they’re doing from their managers, peers and reports. It gives them a rounded view that helps them identify where they can develop and grow. Putting a whole organisation under a similar 360 spotlight generates really helpful information about culture that can help an organisation develop. We call this cultural conversations.

We’ve run several cultural conversations recently. The first for a faculty at a university that was planning a reorganisation and did not want to introduce yet another round of changes without giving some consideration to culture. Especially as it knew there were some issues.

In this case we co-designed a survey with a staff group and used the results to develop a framework for conversations (not interviews) with a representative selection of staff. The aim: to more deeply understand what people’s experiences of the culture was.

We discovered a lot about cultural conversations through this process:

1. The quality and behaviours of the leadership team have a hugely enabling or disabling impact on everybody.

2. It’s common to find that leadership is having a better time than everybody else, and because they’re happy, they assume everyone else is having a good time too – when they might not be.

3. A survey is really helpful for gathering data, but even when there are open free-text questions, the data doesn’t give enough qualitative detail for clients to make decisions about what to do. However, when the stories from the in-person conversations are combined with survey data, it creates a really powerful lever.

4. The conversations are cathartic for people. Just being able to tell somebody about your experience seems to go a long way to alleviating the frustration or the dissatisfaction with the way things work. Not that it’s always bad. Just being able to acknowledge it and be heard seems to be important.

In this client’s case, the upshot was that the culture at the university is better than most. However there were things that really weren’t good enough including a high incidence of bullying.

Seeing it in black and white and hearing the stories and examples overlaid on the data, created a compelling story that gave the client’s leadership and their working group a lever to incentivise people to do something about it.

What we found:

Some very senior people were demanding and aggressive in their style with junior staff. In more than one department, people felt bullied and harassed. When things weren’t going right it was a psychologically unsafe place to be.

Our client knew some bullying was happening. We discovered the scale and breadth of it was a lot higher than they had realised. Some people were working really long hours, lived in fear and felt miserable but were frightened to call it out. Others not directly affected were aware of it but felt powerless to help.

Not everybody was a bully but a few people’s behaviour cast a very long shadow, and it stemmed from a long history of the way people at the top behaved.

What was helpful here was to contrast cultures from other departments where things were different.

As a result we were able to describe the toxic behaviours and identify their systemic causes. For example because universities are hierarchical there are often status gaps between established academics and early career researchers. This makes it hard for junior staff to challenge behaviours.

We did some further work and surfaced the ideas people had to make it better and what they’d like to see happen. This is now leading to a staff-led steering group and work streams that are resourced with a project manager.

They’re giving responsibility for the change design and delivery to staff, while making the leadership accountable for making sure it happens. This is an interesting way to subvert the hierarchy.

What if the culture is good? Another example

We’re doing a cultural conversation project for a very different kind of organisation where the culture is good. The brief here was, “help us understand what we’re doing well so that we don’t lose it as we grow, because we’re anticipating a period of growth. We might double in size and we think that our culture might be at risk.”

Using the same approach, we found that broadly their culture is really good. But there are some cracks: the problems they were worried about appearing in the future were already here.

It was good timing because they were at the beginning of this growth period, but if they did not address it, you could see the direction they might end up going in.

For example, this organisation is excellent at induction and have off-the-scale engagement levels, but they’ve grown so rapidly there are gaps and blindspots:

  • It is a remote-first organisation. There are some people who feel isolated and without senior champions. They don’t have the experience or the authority to influence effectively and they’re often asked to present at a level they don’t feel comfortable with.
  • Some new hires caused issues for people who’d been passed over for promotion.
  • People buy into the cool things the organisation does, but it’s not clear to staff what all their component activities add up to. That ambiguity cascaded down from the top: we heard about a junior staff member who’d been charged with measuring something every day, but they had literally no idea why. Without that knowledge, it made their work meaningless and no one was aware of what clues they might be missing.
  • Leadership were not very clear about their strategy and how they should focus. Which meant everyone did too much work, leading to resentful and tired people working really hard and not succeeding.

We were able to make a series of practical recommendations to them including that they need to:

  • build the organisation’s confidence around difficult conversations,
  • get clear about what their expectations of leadership are,
  • think harder about supporting career development, and
  • get a lot clearer about the relationship between their vision and their strategy.

Recognising these blind spots created the opportunity to do something about it. Involving people in the discovery and in the design of interventions is an effective way of helping to shape a new culture.

A cultural conversation is a powerful way to understand the culture in your organisation. If you’ve got problems, it’s really important to understand where they’re coming from and if you think everything is okay, that might be the time you need to check.

If you’d like help with issues like this, at Then Somehow we help you build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation perform better, get in touch here, or if you’re looking for 360 feedback review for individuals – have a look at our new 360 service: AdviceSheet.

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