Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Cultural Resiliency

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It is very hard work to change a culture. Whether that culture is the essence of what defines an organization, or that culture is part of a larger society. Culture change is tough, culture is resilient and change does not come easily or simply by wishing it were so.

Let me give you an example. Many times over the years I have worked with organizations that have extraordinary high amounts of turnover. They may be hiring students, or part-timers, or people who are looking to supplement their income during certain times of the year.  Year over year, the members who make up their front-line staff can change dramatically, yet their scores on an annual employee survey can remain very stable, even when the organization is working hard to improve those scores. “How can this be?”, is a question I have been asked more than once. In one case, almost the entire front-line population had changed out, meaning virtually no one from the previous year’s survey was left, and yet the scores were within 1 point of where they were a year earlier. Management in this case, thought that all the unhappy malcontents would leave, and that, combined with their improvement efforts should improve the scores. But this is what tends to happen in organizations:

  • The policies, practices and procedures, the frustrations employees experienced in getting their work done did not change, so even as the new staff entered they experienced the same environment as the departed staff and quickly assumed the same attitudes
  • Turnover was not uniform. Those in management for instance did not exhibit the same amount of turnover, so the new employees experienced the same people, with the same behaviors that the departed staff experienced
  • One common cause of turnover is the lack of ability to achieve one’s career aspirations in your current organization, and just because the staff turns over, if you are hiring similar types of people (e.g. students, young professionals), their career aspirations will likely be, as a group, no different than the previous year’s group. The career aspirations of any one person can of course be different
  • Another cause of turnover is frustration with the effectiveness of the organization, the way the work gets done. That does not change simply because new employees enter an organization.

It is possible to achieve steady, meaningful improvement in an organization’s culture scores through hard work, consistency and continuity of effort, but when a score shifts dramatically higher or dramatically lower in a short period of time, it is not unusual to find out that there is new leadership within the organization, whether that be a department, division, business unit, company-wide…

…or at a country level.

The findings on culture change that are seen within for-profit organizations have analogs within our country and society overall, after all both are made up of people with all of their foibles, strengths and similarities. The overall culture of the USA is resilient (for better or for worse). Meaning that as immigrants come to our shores there is very little danger of large cultural shifts occurring as long as the institutions of the USA remain intact. Those democratic institutions make up the policies, practices and procedures which define and by which our society operates. Just like organizations that experience steady state cultures, (for better or for worse), over time the same factors come into play as new people have entered and will continue to enter our country, because they are exposed to and live under those institutions. Yes, you may get access to new foods that immigrants bring, or other “cosmetic factors”, but underneath it all people are people and the factors that drove my grandparents to escape the pogroms of Russia are the same factors that drive people to our shores today. A search for dignity, safety, a better life if not for themselves then for their children, have driven people to us for hundreds of years. And the drive of those people to achieve their goals is what has made this country great. Virtually none of these historical immigrants would have gotten in on their “merits” of education or wealth, but succeed they did, and succeed their children did, based on their hard work and desire to have a better life.

With our recent change in leadership, the attacks on our democracy by Russia, and the subsequent attacks on the policies, practices, and procedures by which we have prospered, we are running a grave risk that the culture inherent to our democracy, the culture that represents our “secret sauce” or “special essence” can begin to swing and be put into jeopardy.  Consider this a warning from someone who has studied organizational culture for over 30 years.

Complacency during this dark period in our history is not an option. Ellie Wiesel saw this happen in Germany and concluded, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Many of the institutions which support our democracy are under attack. The traditional role and dignity of the office of the Presidency is under attack, and at the moment has largely been destroyed. The critical role of a free and unfettered press is under attack, minorities are under attack, children and families are under attack, our access to egalitarian education is under attack, our very planet is under attack which means that the future of our children and our grandchildren is under attack.

While culture is resilient, we are seeing dangerous cracks in our culture developing. Divisiveness is growing. Hate groups are newly emboldened. Fascists and anti-democratic forces are becoming stronger. Each day we move closer to becoming an autocratic kleptocracy with a fondness for dictatorial strongmen. Our traditional adversaries rejoice in our lack of leadership and in our failing strength while our allies are feeling abandoned and forlorn. The USA, even with all of its shortcomings, was the leader of the free world and a shining beacon for humanity on this planet. We have abandoned that position. It will be a long road, but we can begin the repair the damage that has been done, to ourselves and to the world. We can repair our culture and this world and use this experience to enhance our country’s future resiliency. Vote in November.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

August 14, 2018 at 7:55 pm

One Response

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  1. Good piece Jeff — both from the organizational and societal perspectives. Thanks.

    Kristofer Fenlason

    August 15, 2018 at 12:34 pm


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