Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As federal agencies navigate the transition, organizational culture is paramount

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Dr. Victoria Grady and Dr. Patrick McCreesh. This column is part five of a ten part series on change management and the federal government. Be the first to see future articles by signing up for Bloomberg Government’s weekly newsletter. 

Culture is central to the success of organizational change.  In two previous pieces, we discussed change readiness of federal employees and leadership through the transition, which both require acknowledgement of— and respect for—organizational culture.

Culture sits on a continuum. At one end, agencies are defined by formal and informal subcultures which promote effective and consistent culture.  These organizations optimize productivity through acknowledgment of internal differences, new ideas, challenges, complexity and the value of diversity as a proper container of emotions in an incubator of innovation. At the other end, there are agencies that act as closed systems where new thoughts are considered a threat, groups retreat into silos and important information is withheld—all of which leads to organizational ineffectiveness.  These agencies will find it difficult to successfully navigate change and transition.

When employees feel disenfranchised or disregarded by the culture of an organization the introduction of change will lead to increased resistance. This resistance limits awareness and inadvertently leads to “quick fixes” that ultimately hinder growth and transition of the organization. However, when the employee’s purposes and the organizational purposes are unified by complementary objectives, the positive nature of this culture can be utilized as a way of managing significant change within an organization.

The forces of change and the resulting instability have provided an increasingly frequent incentive to merge the needs of a qualified workforce and leadership authority into an interdependent organizational communityThere is no better example for this opportunity than within our federal government:

Federal Employees are Agencies’ most important resource

In 2017, more than 1.4 million civilian employees are set to collect a paycheck from the United States Federal Government.  These employees represent approximately 440 agencies.  Each of these agencies represents an organizational culture uniquely maintained by the individual employees who constitute the collective agency. Leadership at all levels should nurture this culture as an asset to change and transition.

Resources Need to be Protected

Individuals have both conscious and unconscious needs for protection against anxiety, uncertainty, division and conflict; this is especially critical during a transition.  Management and leadership can guard against the perception of neglect with proactive steps to increase communication, support diversity/inclusion and encourage collaboration to minimize the occurrence of these negative reactions.

Most Importantly, Nurture the Culture with your People

There is no better way to understand the culture than to understand those who work there.  The culture is a collection of traditions, values, beliefs, rituals and symbols that are uniquely defined over time.  The culture then becomes a tool that will support your people and measurably increase the potential for success.

Organizational culture is an often overlooked aspect of change and transition.  New leaders regularly seek to “re-define the culture” as part of broader organizational change efforts, but run the risk of throwing out the good with the bad.  Culture connects individuals to organizations, and employees are the primary resource in agencies.

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Federal employees and change: Measuring an organization's readiness