January 10, 2023

Looking Back to Look Ahead: A Manager’s Perspective on Organizational Culture

Community Conversation Takeaways

Organizational Culture

By: Jackie Ogden

We’re coming out of a tough few years. Mental health issues are reported to be at an all-time high. To this point, the U.S. Surgeon General recently released a framework regarding mental health in the workplace, which lays out clear actions leaders can take to address mental health – which, largely, are about improving organizational culture and growing employee engagement. Our recent Community Conversation webinar focused on this topic, first by looking at where we are from a culture perspective, then by discussing things you can do to improve your organization’s culture.  

Looking Back: Organizational Culture Data

We first heard from Dr. Kyle Lundby, Principal, Global Aspect Human Capital Advisors, who has been working with AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to assess employee engagement and culture, amongst other topics. 

He shared data from the past few years. Results showed that engagement levels have declined (while percentage of “quiet-quitters“ increased), and that some declines are more pronounced in several job functions. When asked to describe their organizational culture, about half of employees used very positive terms (team-oriented, inclusive, great) and half used negative terms (toxic, siloed, top-down, old-school). Employees who used positive terms were significantly more engaged, committed, and had rated a range of workplace characteristics significantly more positive. Conversely, those who used negative terms were significantly less engaged, more likely to express intentions to leave, and felt less psychologically safe (i.e., less willing to speak up, share their ideas, or voice suggestions). 

Looking Ahead: How Can You Improve Organizational Culture?

So, what do we do? We all know that an organization’s senior leaders play a crucial role regarding creating culture – both for good and bad – but we tend to think they’re the only leaders that can have an impact. But when you think about it, we’ve all known leaders at all levels of an organization who make a positive difference for their culture every day. During this webinar, we heard from five such leaders, from organizations across AZA and at all levels of the hierarchy: Nikki Dzialowy, Facilities Manager, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park; Ryan Haynes, Safari Experiences Manager, San Diego Safari Park; Trevor Mia, Curator of Education, St Augustine Alligator Farm; Sam Rivera, DVM, Senior Director of Animal Health, Zoo Atlanta; and Jen Rudolph, Manager of Ambassador Animal Programs, Roger Williams Park Zoo.

They shared stories about how they personally felt they had helped to increase the positivity of their cultures, cited specific actions/behaviors they took to make a difference, and explained specific ways in which they had directly addressed toxicity. Below are a few of the stories these leaders shared:

  • You can’t underestimate the power of relationships. One leader spoke of the importance of getting to know their team – and beyond their team – as individuals, by working alongside them, in uniform, to better understand the issues and how their department could make a difference. 
  • Involve people in the process and in decision-making. This leader shared how they had worked to change how their organization engaged guests in conservation – first through a top-down approach (which didn’t work) and then through a “co-design” process – where the leader put together a cross-functional, cross-level team that worked together (which did work).  This resulted in a great product and positively impacted their culture along the way.
  • The importance of humility, asking for help, and providing tools. Another organization was also working to improve their guest engagement. The leader had a new group of employees and took the humble approach with them – “a lot of my programs are not that great – they could use an upgrade” – by asking the team to help improve them. They then gave the employees the tools they needed to make it happen and worked alongside them to do so.
  • Connect your employees to their mission. One leader observed how engaged people became when directly involved with conservation. So, they worked to allow more people to directly participate in conservation projects and be involved in environmental sustainability efforts at the zoo. And it worked. 
  • Stop being frustrated and just do it. But don’t do it alone. Finally, one leader talked about how frustrated they were by their organization’s “non-sustainable” special events. Instead of just being frustrated, they took their anger and used it for good – creating a team of people to work on this initiative. Two years later, their events are “trash-free.” The team is doing great too.
  • Specific behaviors/actions they used:
    • Allowing the team to be part of the development from the beginning
    • Letting the team make decisions
    • Making it okay to provide feedback
    • Celebrating the proud moments
    • Helping people move from “outrage to solutions…and focusing on positive intent”
    • Focusing on relationships, relationships, relationships
    • Constantly talking about (and demonstrating) the behaviors they wanted to see – specifically being a service organization to each other and to other departments
  • Providing the “why” behind decisions – a leader talked about sending a note each week about what was happening the following week and why, so people both were informed and could ask questions. 

The leaders also shared ideas for directly addressing toxicity in the workplace:

  • One leader shared a situation at a previous organization where there were a large number of “cliques.” They and another leader started having lunch together off grounds, began inviting others from across departments, welcomed everyone, got to know them as people, and very rarely talked about work.  
  • Another talked about the importance of not getting sucked into snarkiness and gossiping, but instead focusing on positive things. (As my mother said, if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all). 
  • One spoke about a work-focused gratitude board.

Finally, we discussed an effort within AZA to aid organizations as they work to integrate their conservation missions into their culture – helping everyone feel like conservation is their personal mission. The Vice-Chair of AZA’s Human Resources Committee, Jeff Vanek from Hogle Zoo, talked about a series of AZA-sponsored webinars/discussion groups intended to help people as they engage in this effort. Feel free to contact Jeff for more information at jvanek@hoglezoo.org.

Thank you to our panelists for sharing their data, stories, and insights. View the full webinar recording here.

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