Organizational Culture Can Make or Break an Organization

By Veronica Barber

Less teamwork, some dissatisfied customers, census is decreasing, employee turnover is increasing . . . 

Often the signs are there that something is wrong, and although we take action on the “dashboard” signals (e.g., the oil light is on), too often we miss the bigger picture.

This is because we tend to “symptom-solve”, focusing only on the dashboard alerts such as census or turnover. By focusing solely on the symptoms, we never fully understand the underlying reasons for the symptoms – the actual problem. In most cases, the symptoms are related to a struggling organizational culture.

Organizational Culture Can Make or Break an Organization

Recently, I had a conversation with an HR person at a large hospital system. They had hired an executive who looked like the perfect employee. Her resume was impressive, she interviewed well, and she seemed to be the right person for the job. However, three years later, they were realizing that her leadership style was “damaging” the organization.

Luckily, for this organization, the HR person was astute enough to recognize that most of the employee issues plaguing the organization were a direct result of how the executive was leading/managing. This organization was not only quick to realize the underlying problem, but equally quick to take action directly with the executive – and not waste time trying to solve the symptoms:

  • unhappy employees

  • lack of teamwork

  • quality of care decreasing

  • turnover increasing, etc.  

It seems obvious but when you fix the problem, the symptoms almost always go away!

Understanding Organizational Culture

Senior living is a weird mix of touchy-feely and yet the data collected often lends itself to a “seat-of-the-pants” management style. On rare occasions it actually works great, but most of the time it lives in the world of barely okay to barely not okay. “Organizational culture” gets less attention, simply because it’s hard to measure. However, by spending the time assessing your culture, and monitoring it on an ongoing basis, you can make a huge impact on your organization.  

First, it’s helpful to understand what organizational culture is. Your organizational culture is made up of:

  • The collective experience of all stakeholders

  • Routines

  • Symbols

  • Beliefs

  • Values

  • Goals  

  • Systems  

These things are learned and passed on to new employees or new residents, as a part of the organization’s core identity.  

When I walk into a senior community, or I am working with a new group of leaders, it quickly becomes apparent whether the culture is: friendly, welcoming, distrusting, angry, optimistic, innovative, etc. Touring the community, watching the interactions and listening to the stories people share with me, I can easily assess the culture of the organization.  

You can too, when you know what to look for!

Ways to Identify Organizational Culture

Sometimes the easiest way to define something is by starting with what it’s not. Assessing the organization relative to its values is one way to see how closely the culture reflects the values.  

I recommend looking specifically for signs of the values in action, like witnessing “respectful” interactions, or asking employees about “accountability”, etc.  

No matter what the values are, you can look for signs of them or ask employees directly about them. Do employees even know what the values are in the organization? Can the employees or residents give some examples of what the values look like when they are displayed in the best possible way? The same is true for the organizational mission or vision statements – what can you find out/observe relative to any of the organizational symbols or goals?

Another quick and informal way to assess organizational culture is to ask the following questions:

  • Describe the organizational culture using only 3 words.

  • When giving tours, which areas do you visit, and which areas do you avoid?  Why?

  • What is the BEST part of the organization that I wouldn’t see by just walking around?

  • What do new employees have to say about the organizational culture?

  • What do veteran employees have to say about the organizational culture?

  • What are the most common complaints by employees?

  • What are the most common complaints by residents?

  • If you could wave a magical wand and change one thing immediately – what would it be?

Knowing Your Culture Helps You to Know Where to Invest Your Time

Traditionally senior living communities focus on financial and clinical metrics (outcome data, occupancy). You will see tremendous payback if you equally focus on organizational culture metrics. You might find out that you have a culture of: lack of follow-up, lack of accountability, no clear direction, having “favorites”, groups of cliques, distrust, or any other problematic beliefs or experiences.  

These areas do not typically make up the metrics list but if you invest your time and energy to better understand them and work to change them (by first identifying why they are happening – i.e. the problem), you will be pleasantly surprised by the results. You will not only strengthen your organizational culture, but, as a by-product of solving them, you will achieve better metric results in other areas!