The Culture Pandemic

The Amplification of Organizational Cultures During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In March 2020, offices everywhere began to send their employees home. Little did we know the scope and magnitude of what we were facing. Figuring out virtual meetings, dealing with kids and pets, and watching the world seemingly unravel from the isolation of our computer screens, all took its toll. But what about organizations? We’ve all heard of businesses that have thrived and failed during The Pandemic, either by circumstance or strategy, but what’s been going on inside those organizations?

What about the Culture?

At Human Synergistics Canada, we have known for a long time that Organizational Culture directly influences Employee Engagement. Of course, culture directly influences many other related and unrelated outcomes, such as customer service, turnover, and product quality. We now have strong evidence to suggest that culture has affected one more very important outcome – the organization’s ability to effectively deal with The Pandemic.

We have conducted a number of culture surveys during the last year, even at the height of The Pandemic. Many of these clients chose this as an opportunity to ask their staff additional, customized questions about how they were treated during the crisis. Although we do not have enough data to provide absolutes, the trends are significant.

Organizations that had Constructive Cultures before The Pandemic maintained or improved their constructive profiles. When asked, employees praised their organizations for being caring, understanding, and helpful. Team meetings went well, and the organizations successfully met the challenges thrown at them. These organizations transitioned smoothly to working remotely, made a conscious effort to check in with team members, and were flexible about differing work from home situations. When their industries and the world at large were met with crisis, by rising to the challenge and responding in constructive ways, these companies were able to successfully navigate The Pandemic. Some actually become slightly more Constructive.

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In contrast, we found that organizations that had a Defensive Culture prior to the crisis became even more Defensive. In a culture where there are large extensions in the defensive styles, the groundwork is already there for destructive behaviour. Bad habits, distrust, poor communication, and aggressiveness are amplified during a crisis or when problems arise. When a culture, or an individual, is reacting out of a need for safety and security, rather than satisfaction and actualization, they embody the defensive styles. In a crisis like a pandemic when there is uncertainty everywhere, these negative styles only become more intensified.

Passive/Defensive organizations seemed to muddle through. They took a long time to get on track and tried to get by with on over-reliance on rules and regulations and deferred decision-making. We found organizations had an extremely difficult time shifting their procedures to accommodate to the changing situations, even at the detriment of productivity. One example is money allotted for personal devices not being adjusted, despite the increased need for them, leading to employees to either spend their own money or simply not work until they had the technology to do so. Taking a long time to give access to information and documents because of protocol rules was another roadblock we saw, again resulting in an inability to accomplish anything.

On the other hand, when they did start to adjust, many Passive/Defensive cultures relied far too much on establishing unilateral, inflexible rules across the board, despite having a variety of situations to apply them to. Because these organizations are reacting from a need for security, they place an over-emphasis on rules and regulations to help them feel more secure, at the detriment of productivity, creativity, and employee well-being.

Aggressive/Defensive organizations tended to respond to the crisis by “going on the attack”. The management team of many such organizations firmly believed that their employees could not be trusted to honestly and consistently put in a 40-hour week from home. Not only did they initiate methods to measure online time, but they also found other ways to monitor and check up on productivity. They made high demands of their teams in terms of productivity and availability, and set unrealistic expectations. These organizations, rooted deeply in their need for security and task completion, consistently sent their employees the message that they did not matter as much as the bottom line.

A lot of Aggressive/Defensive organizations also used The Pandemic as an excuse to “clean house” and let go many employees, especially those who could not meet the new demands of working from home. Studies have shown that parents, especially women, were disproportionately affected by Pandemic layoffs. Then, instead of hiring more people, those companies simply increased the work loads of those left behind.

Because of the links between culture and the aforementioned outcomes, the implications for Defensive cultures are clear. Because of the poor handling of the crisis, those companies with Defensive Cultures got worse. And along with it, their significant outcomes also worsened. When they come back into the office, employee engagement, customer service, and product quality will all be worse than it was before The Pandemic. These same organizations will have to invest heavily in improving their culture in order to turn this around.

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One of the more devastating outcomes of defensive cultures is that constructive individuals that may have been getting by pre-pandemic are more likely to leave the company, taking their constructive ideas, attitudes, and enthusiasm with them. Without the leadership of these individuals, organizations will have an even more challenging task ahead of them. Improving organizational culture is highly dependant on the individual thinking styles of the members of that organization, particularly the leadership team.

Ironically, because of their aggressive cost cutting strategies, the Aggressive/Defensive cultures may have a lot more money to invest in improving their culture, but doing so will take a lot longer, as people who are treated badly are often slow to forgive, if they come back to work at all. While those organizations with a Constructive Culture will continue to measure and pay attention to culture, both Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive organizations need to be planning now to measure and change their cultures. If you’re serious about it – give us a call. 


About the Author

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Allan Stewart

Allan Stewart has been the president of Human Synergistics Canada since 1996. His unique background combines a successful general management career with extensive workshop training experience and a varied academic career. Allan has conducted training programs for organizations in retail, finance, mining, manufacturing, energy, athletics, education, health care and various sectors of the government. He was a senior executive with Sears Canada Inc. and has been a professor at McMaster University and Sheridan College. He received his B.Com. from Queen’s University and his M.B.A. from Wilfrid Laurier University. Allan has over 30 years experience in developing and conducting training workshops. His past clients have included some of the largest and most successful organizations in Canada. He has trained executives, first-line supervisors, trainers, sales-people and line workers. He has been an instructor with the Executive Development Programs at McMaster, York Universities and the Ontario Police College. He has been a key-note speaker on television and at a number of professional conferences. He is considered a leading expert on organizational culture and development. Allan’s dynamic training style and practical approach make him a popular workshop facilitator who has helped people throughout Canada and internationally. He has written articles and workbooks on a variety of subjects, including culture, leadership, stress management, change leadership, entrepreneurship and selling. As well, Allan Stewart is a skilled consultant, interacting with individuals, teams and companies.  As a volunteer, Allan has conducted leadership skills workshops for youth in Canada's native communities and in third world countries. He has lead several charitable organizations, coached minor sports for over 20 years, counseled elite athletes, and developed and lead young entrepreneurs' programs.