There remains much we can’t control in this strange year, in some ways it feels easier to
stay in ‘survival mode’. One area we can still control is our own leadership and the
behaviour we role model for our team, peers, bosses and stakeholders. The new virtual
environment only heightens the importance of these attributes.
Through our leadership behaviour we foster the culture within which our team works. Good
leaders won’t leave culture to chance, they will be deliberate about it and stay committed
throughout the ebbs and flows of the inevitable stress and pressure of the work. They know
a good culture provides the platform for achieving strong work outcomes.
Often people struggle to pinpoint what culture is. A simple description is ‘the way we do
things around here’. A more specific way to describe it is the ‘the behaviour we currently
accept or we don’t, both good and bad’ within our team/Branch/Division/Organisation.
Culture is usually spoken about when things go horribly wrong. In recent years there’s been several well known examples of institutional failure, which have led to Royal Commissions involving the banks; aged care; the church and so on. Trust within institutions is at an all time low and a poor culture (lacking trust) has been at the heart of most findings. The culture across the public service always varies from Department to Department and from Branch to Branch within each Department, usually mirroring the capability of the leaders in each area. People always pay close attention to how the senior leaders achieve results, particularly how they communicate; role model their own behaviour; handle mistakes; share successes; and whether their actions mirror what they say.
All these culture signals will either enhance or erode trust in the eyes of the people observing them. It’s never seamless for any of us to get all these culture signals 100% right, especially if our senior stakeholders (such as the Minister) have a low tolerance for anything other than fast paced results. I recall early in my public sector career struggling to navigate within a toxic team culture. Performance in the Branch was poor and silo’s were the mechanism to protect your patch. Rather than try and improve the Branch, most dialogue about performance was geared towards blaming others and shifting responsibility. Low trust was king within this culture.
The Branch Head was defensive and probably lacked the nous to improve the culture, finding it easier to focus on other things. Not surprisingly, both the environment and our performance didn’t improve across the Branch. In fact, it got worse, we started to lose talented and capable people. In the end that included me too. Unfortunately these scenarios are all too common. When I reflect back on that time, a couple of things stand out:
1. how easy it was for the poor behaviour within the team culture to become normalised.
2. there was no appetite for our dialogue to focus on our culture. We were avoiding
the crucial piece and not taking responsibility. I wish I had greater courage in that
instance to more actively influence the blindingly obvious.
It was around this point in my career I realised how important a healthy culture was to my
own engagement and also the direct link it has to performance outcomes of the team.
Within all teams a culture exists. The behaviours that sit within your team culture are what
drive your successes, as well as your failures. Despite the challenges this year good leaders
(at all levels) will continue to pay attention to their team culture.
One obvious challenge most leaders are currently grappling with is the movement among
senior executives across the Public Sector. Many are coming in and out of COVID taskforces
and org structures remain unsettled. With this type of churn, along with the virtual working
arrangements in place it would be easy to ignore team culture until ‘things get back to
This is a mistake and the performance of your team will likely drift during the interim.
If you’re unsure where to start in terms of culture, have a think about the following:
- What are the behaviours you currently accept (both good and bad) in your team?
- Which of these are counterproductive for the team to achieve the work goals?
It’s worth considering these in light of your own leadership role modelling, for example:
- How consistent are your leadership behaviours in the eyes of your team?
- Is there much of a gap between what you say and what you actually do?
- Do you actively help your team stay aligned with the work?
- Do people in your team feel comfortable raising difficult issues?
- Are you effective at fostering trust and empowerment in your team?
Your reflections to these questions will help you determine the culture that currently exists in the team you lead.