“Things weren’t great”, Joyce told me. She’s an internal consultant at a large city municipality with 7,000 staff in the Netherlands. Their social department of about 500 people showed alarming absenteeism numbers.

This social department helps the unemployed citizens of this city find a job. They offer various training, upgrading of skills, and above all, a network of local employers that are trying to fulfill any vacancies. They help young people find their first job or internship, they help the unemployed that are physically impaired, and they support starting entrepreneurs in the city.

“Looking at our absenteeism numbers, we noticed that almost 10% of our staff was absent. Analyzing this further, we found that most of these people weren’t ill. Many of them simply yearned for another position, either because they were getting older and wanted to take a step back, or because they had more potential and felt bored or obstructed…”

Present, Absent, or Both?

“Imagine! Our municipality offers lifetime employment so here they were: stuck for a paycheck. No longer a fit with their current position, but there wasn’t space to move within our organization. Everyone stayed put. People were demotivated and passive.”

Joyce decided on a culture survey and some other tools to get a better look at the problem. “Our culture won’t buy anything until you gather data.” The Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI, © Kim Cameron) helped them assess their current and preferred culture, and The Positive Culture Book provided Joyce with more ideas of what could be possible. See their OCAI culture profile on the right: it is in Dutch but the blue visual profile shows how they’d prefer more attention for people and professional autonomy (the upper 2 culture types).

What was interesting, was that all other tools that this department used, produced the same answer.
“That made our culture profile really strong. The executive team couldn’t sweep the outcome under the rug. The 360-degrees feedback said exactly the same: there’s not enough attention for people, and teamwork, and participation. Our culture, and our leaders above all, focus on tasks and procedures first and foremost. Results are second. People feel that they come last.”

The research on positive cultures shows the same: people thrive with supportive, appreciative attention. “During the culture session with the executive team, they were shocked. But the profile drove the message home: this is serious, and it is true. The current executives are focused on planning and control. They cling to the hierarchy, and to the shadow side; almost turning into bureaucracy. Nothing happens without a number of signatures. Everyone is waiting for others to do something. There’s analysis paralysis. Better safe than sorry, is the slogan. The executives scored low on empathy in the 360-degree feedback. They are controllers, really. Managers act as engineers, instead of servant leaders, or mentors who help their people.

One of the managers walked up to me after the session with tears in his eyes. Help me do this differently, he said. I really want to change and improve my leadership skills.” That’s why Joyce hired an external executive coach for the entire executive team who is helping them to focus more on people and their needs.

Pushing for production

A few months after their first culture assessment and intervention, this department merged with the social workplace that offers jobs to people with special needs. The social workplace was led by interim leaders with a results-oriented assignment. They had to run the social workplace like a business and make money. These interim guys weren’t from an older generation of baby boomers, raised on power, planning and control. They were the prototype of moneymaking smart guys, and they didn’t pay much attention to the people side of the organization either. They went for results.

Every annual appraisal focused on tasks and results. No leader ever asked an employee what they would like, or could learn. Employees, on the other hand, were acquiescent. They were used to the top-down culture, rather passive, not really motivated, and not used to taking initiative. It was a perfect balance of stagnation.
The harder the managers pushed, the less employees cared. They felt that the work was not their responsibility, they just executed. The managers were in control, and accountable.

“What would the people want?”

Joyce shares that the culture is currently changing. The executive coach works closely with all leaders, both the older men of the social department and the younger interim leaders of the social workplace. The main focus is people skills, engaging and coaching people. Joyce offers additional exercises from the Positive Culture Book – and shares the research to convince the managers that it works. The format of all annual appraisals now includes different questions and criteria. The main question is: What would you like to do in the next year? This is stimulating a different energy. It makes people think, slowly but surely.

“The change is palpable in the executive team”, says Joyce. “I see that they are different. They give each other feedback on people skills, and wonder: what would the people want…? This question was unheard of, a year ago!”

Their absenteeism rate is now approaching 6%. That means that presence is up! And not just by the numbers. People are more engaged at work. Their culture is developing, and people start to feel more included, and hopeful. The challenge is to keep up this good work…

  • How is this for your workplace? Is there enough appreciative attention for people? This is an important first step to developing a more positive culture.
  • Are people absent, present, or both? What could you do to engage them?

This is a real client case. Joyce is a pseudonym. Her organization wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you for the interview about our project and your willingness to share, Joyce!

Do you want to learn more about developing a positive culture? Join this Positive Culture Academy. Go to the enroll page and start the change! The curriculum can be done self-paced and with your team. Help your organization develop its positive potential.

POSITIVE NOTE: The super saver for the open Culture Change Leadership workshop in March 2019 is valid until November 2! You can join us at the best rate if you’re in time… Let’s develop more positive workplaces!

© Marcella Bremer, 2018. All rights reserved.

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