February 23, 2022

Culture? What Culture? The Shaping of Organizational Cultures to Drive Success

By Jackie Ogden, PhD.

  • “This place is toxic…”

  • “I need you to stay again until the presentation is done, even if it takes all night…’the bosses’ expect it to be perfect…like always”

  • “The ends justify the means…that’s how you get ahead around here.”

  • “It’s clear that while they say mission is important, business results are more important here…”

Those sound like a Dilbert cartoon, right? Although not so funny. What about these?

  • “Your family comes first – that’s important to us here…”

  • “Did you hear they’re giving everybody paid sick leave if they have covid? Even part-timers?”

  • “We believe in fun here.”

  • “I hear that we’re committed to continuing to focus on conservation…just like we did last time we had a downturn – that’s amazing!”

Much better leadership, right? Sure. But these aren’t just statements from an individual leader – they reference the culture of the organization. Organizational culture is generally defined as “the collection of values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the actions of all team members.”

There was a time when Dilbert’s culture was normal. That was when people honestly believed that there wasn’t a relationship between employee satisfaction, engagement, and business results. For those of you who are younger than me – that would be most of you – this is probably hard to believe. The rule of thumb was that employee happiness didn’t matter, that good leadership was about people being afraid of you. I was told consistently that I had to be less nice if I wanted to be successful. I didn’t do it (although some of you may disagree) and it seems to have worked out okay. 

I’m not suggesting that Dilbert’s culture is a thing of the past. Of course, it’s still with us – otherwise we wouldn’t painfully chuckle when we read the comic. 

But the leadership world has changed, and we’ve all seen it happening. There’s now scientific evidence of a linkage between job satisfaction, engagement, and organizational success. Phew – now we can actually care about our employees without being mocked. Or at least mocked less. Organizations now talk about empathy. About emotional intelligence. About caring for all people. 

We now know that all organizations have cultures. Families too. (Including families of non-human animals like monkeys and birds). Leaders – and those academic types – began wondering if you could influence your culture. Were we all just stuck with icky cultures where people didn’t want to go to work? These folks learned that you could actually change a culture. Create a culture. Surprise, surprise!

And of course, what this means is that leaders DO create their culture. Whether they mean to or not. It’s much like animal training, right? I may not be intentionally training my dog, but I’m doing so anyhow.

What if we became intentional about this? What if leaders thought about what makes up a culture, and actually worked to influence it? Spoiler alert – it works! Many organizations have seen significant results from creating a “safety culture.” I saw it happen at Disney. We all thought we had a safety culture until we really started building one. Wow – what a difference! We also worked hard to instill environmental sustainability into the culture – and had significant success. 

Some of you may have heard that AZA has been helping our members integrate the conservation part of their missions into their organizational culture – or “helping everybody think conservation is part of their job.” This effort was driven by an AZA member task force appointed by the board, with assistance from many members such as Houston, Cleveland, and Monterey Bay, as well as researchers from Inform Research, Antioch University, and others. AZA conducted a baseline survey of our members last year and we’re completing our analysis of the results. AZA’s Human Resources Committee is now piloting how to help our members do this work in ways that value the differences in our organizations and build on the work they’ve already completed.

It sounds so obvious that we’ll be more successful if we integrate an initiative into the culture. But it’s really not. Nor is it always easy. The alternative is what has happened across our society with “diversity” over the past decades. As we know, it’s Black History Month. And it began in 1970. Well, we’ve solved racism, right? Ha. We all know better. But companies across the United States have had “diversity initiatives” for years. It’s been on performance evaluations. Some companies have even had “diversity specialists.” So why hasn’t it worked?

Well, we know that’s a really complicated answer. But part of it is clearly that it was an initiative that got stuck on top of all the other priorities. We realized that at Disney when we were starting to focus on environmental sustainability. When we talked about it as a separate initiative, everybody rolled their eyes, and frankly looked tired – they had a ton of priorities already and couldn’t imagine adding another thing. Although frustrating, we realized that this made complete sense. It wasn’t until we realized we had to integrate it into what we did – what our culture was – that it would become easier. 

Now, I hope, we are on the path to do the same with DEIAJ. We believe that DEIAJ is important to our zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and other organizations in the “nature space.” They just don’t know how to do it. And frankly, only a few will learn if it remains an initiative on the shelf – an “add-on” if you will. We need to understand that culture change is not one person’s responsibility. No one person has the one right answer – it takes intentional work.

Thank goodness our community is beginning to embrace organizational culture. Every strategic planning conversation I’ve had over the past two years has included a priority around creating the right culture. And the conversation is increasingly moving to how we weave a positive employee culture, conservation, AND DEIAJ into this culture. All of them. Together. So that they all become simply part of what we do. 

There are conversations going on about an annual conference session pulling these things together. If we can really do this in our community – weave all these things into our organizational missions and values and how we work, we just might do it. This means how we advertise jobs, how we interview, how we hire, how we train, what we talk about in meetings and how we talk about it, the stuff on the walls, how we identify priorities, the stories we tell across the organization, our guests, and our governing authorities. 

Imagine if all our employees felt like part of THEIR JOB was to carry forth the mission of doing conservation in a way that helped people and wildlife thrive together in our organizations and in the world, in a way that was respectful, inclusive, and sensitive to access and justice. 

Wow. Join us. 

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