Culture Matters Most During Times of Trouble

April 24, 2020 Ben DiPietro

LRN’s Jim Walton moderated a panel discussion about the importance of having a strong culture during times of crisis, with his guests Andrene Bresnan of The Boeing Company, and Jeff Oak, formerly of Bon Secours Mercy Healthcare.

Walton opened the panel at this week's ECI IMPACT digital conference by speaking about the 10 dimensions of an ethical culture, referring to LRN principles that include incorporating values throughout all levels of the company, encouraging principled performance, consistently applying justice even to top leaders and producers, and encouraging the reporting of misconduct while also protecting reporters against retaliation.

He talked about how to measure an organization’s culture, the reason not to look at what people perceive and to focus on getting people to talk about behaviors they observe. This approach, he said, “is much more effective at finding out what is really going on in your company.”

Oak talked about seven culture management tips. These include his belief organizations that make a big splash about their work to create a strong culture is not the most effective way to actually build a strong culture. He said actions that strengthen culture often aren’t apparent until after the fact.

He spoke of the importance of trust, calling it “the soil in which strong culture grows,” and warned of attempts to market culture.

He finished by stressing the importance of paying attention to ethical culture bellweathers, and talked about the origin of the word bellweather, which refers to the lead sheep in a flock. If the lead sheep is taking the flock to a big green pasture, that’s great. But if the alpha sheep is headed toward a cliff, well, not so good.

Bellweathers to look for include whether senior leaders are penalized if they do something wrong; how transparent the organization is in reporting disciplinary actions; and whether ethics and compliance considerations are factored in when conducting performance reviews, or deciding on raises or promotions, or in setting sales and business goals.

Bresnan discussed actions Boeing is taking in the wake of its problems with the 737-MAX aircraft, which was grounded after two crashes killed more than 300 people. Reporting uncovered employees had expressed safety concerns about the aircraft, but production continued and the planes were allowed into service.

She said, even now in the midst of the pandemic, the company is maintaining a “laser focus” on improving culture. To that end, the company is using data to better focus on areas that need support, and is making the data available to leaders across all business units, as it can’t just be the ethics department talking about ethics.

Another effort at Boeing is to strengthen the company’s speak-up culture by aligning the way the organizations speaks, to making sure there is a consistent process in place, which helps to instill trust and also provides data that feeds back into the system. It’s also vital to make sure people see something, they are comfortable in coming forward and speaking out. For leaders, that means truly listening to concerns, and removing their emotions from the equation when deciding how to act.

“Organizations that focus on purpose, people, and values are going to be able to get through this crisis stronger and better,” said Walton.

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