Many organisations find it hard to know how to respond to signals and have a tendency to say that something was most likely an isolated incident and that their working environment is fine. But these organisations, too, can have all sorts of problems. And it’s often only when something comes to a confidential adviser’s attention that it gets noticed. What’s clear is that there’s now a new generation of employees that is not prepared to accept being intimidated, bullied or manipulated or to tolerate unacceptable behaviour.
‘Why didn’t we know about this?’ That’s what we often hear when we present the results of research into organisational culture. The problem is that, in practice, many organisations have a blind spot when it comes to their own culture. Everyone is part of a specific culture and the behaviourial patterns characterising that culture. And that means there are things they just don’t see or no longer notice. Or maybe they don’t dare to report behaviour they view as unacceptable. Recently, for example, we visited an organisation where jokes containing a sexual element were seen as completely normal. Although some employees were upset by these jokes, they no longer made their objections known because they had already done so before and nothing had changed. Until things really went wrong and somebody filed an official complaint, which caused considerable disruption.
In our view, the organisation could have intervened at a far earlier stage. So, are people no longer allowed to make jokes at work? No, is the simple answer. Particularly in communications you have to realise that jokes can be interpreted differently from how they may have been intended, certainly when people are not hierarchically equal. We hold a mirror up to organisations: managers are often then very surprised at what they see and can’t understand why they didn’t notice it before or why employees didn’t report it. Part of our work involves providing answers to these specific questions.
A characteristic feature of patterns within an organisation is that employees are unaware of or no longer notice how they communicate with each other. In effect, team members become trapped in an emotional and often negative environment and no longer behave in a healthy and appropriate manner. While a new player’s arrival on the scene can disrupt things, existing patterns are usually so engrained that, even unconsciously, they pressurise newcomers into joining in and perpetuating existing patterns of communication. And because it’s so hard to resist this pressure, individuals are quickly co-opted into the system.
When investigating organisational culture we commonly find that various aspects have not been properly provided for. And these are precisely the things that organisations wanting to prevent unsafe social situations have to deal with proactively. They include deciding how to respond to undesired behaviour, how inclusive they are as an organisation (i.e. whether everyone can be themselves), whether mistakes can be discussed openly, how they value and encourage new ideas and whether they call people to account for their behaviour. Another vital aspect in preventing socially unsafe situations is to ensure an appropriate organisational infrastructure in the form, for example, of equal pay and effective mechanisms for reflecting on behaviour. We have also seen how hard it can be for people to change their views on others: ‘It’ll be the troublemaker again’ or ‘They’re always moaning about something.’ People who are different or go against the tide can often become stigmatised. That obviously also happens if people don’t dare to say what they actually think.
Whatever the situation, awareness is essential. Don’t let things fester, make sure employees can say what they think, and that mechanisms and procedures are in place to break through the silence (‘We’re all fine here’). Communicating with individuals in a team or organisation and improving these communications should be a standard agenda item, with regular checking to see whether the organisation is going in the right direction and avoiding escalation. Injecting a focus, in this way, into efforts to achieve a socially safe environment is an important step towards ensuring a healthy climate in the workplace.