How we communicate, who we trust, or how we assess and share risks are all culturally determined and affect how we interact with one another. These behaviours need to be understood for organisational culture problems to be addressed and rectified successfully.
The cultural problems faced by the construction industry are large, complex, and fundamental in nature and need to be solved before they take their toll on the industry and affect the overall economy of the country. These problems are primarily centred around communication and collaboration, but also include a whole plethora of other concepts that are directly linked to culture and are poorly understood, if at all.
But what is culture? Culture is collective behaviour. It is the taught and learned behaviour that is shared with the other members of the group. It is a shared set of beliefs, practices, meanings, symbols and narratives that bind people together and provide them with a sense of belonging and identity. It permits members of the group to communicate and collaborate effectively, creating systems, structures, products and services that would otherwise be impossible for any individual to accomplish on their own.
Cultures differ from one group to another by varying degrees. They are also organic, meaning that they change and evolve over time, influenced by their constituent parts (in this instance individuals), their physical and social environment and by technology. To complicate matters further, cultures divide up into sub-cultures once group membership grows to above a certain size, which is the same for organisational and national cultures.
Organisational cultures start from the top down. It is the boardroom that determines what the company culture will look like and the workforce that lives and practices that culture. This includes the creation of a realistic code of conduct, achievable KPIs, functioning processes and procedures, effective communication strategies and practices, reasonable dress-codes, a shared set values, symbols, and shared goals. All of which together define the company’s identity. This company culture has to be taught to each member of the organisation, because as has already been mentioned “all culture is taught and learned behaviour” and if individual members aren’t taught the culture they are going to struggle to fit in and collaborate effectively with others.
Numerous cultures and sub-cultures operate in the construction industry. If we consider each company as a culture and each department, profession, and trade as a sub-culture within that company (i.e. separate tribes with their own practices, languages, tools and symbols) the problems start to become apparent. We encounter these different cultures and sub-cultures occupying a shared space where they are expected to cooperate flawlessly in order to achieve the same goals and objectives. But how is this possible if each group has a different narrative, different values, practices and goals? How do you get constructors, designers, clients, and supply chains to cooperate and work together if they can’t communicate with each other, if there is no common language? How do you create trust if you can’t communicate effectively? Clear communication is an essential part of building trust. How do you share risk if there is no trust between individuals or teams? In short, how do you cooperate with others if you can’t communicate with them effectively, don’t trust them, and can’t share or mitigate risk collectively?
The answer is, ‘with great difficulty!’ The diversity of cultures, of values and practices, means the overall culture can become toxic and dysfunctional if individuals, teams, and companies clash due to their differences.
Even when we think that the differences aren’t all that big, they often are. For example, if we look at a value such as ‘freedom’ and compare what it might mean in two different but similar cultures we might be surprised to note the differences. Let’s take the USA and Denmark for example. At first glance it would appear that they share common values, have high standards of living and a similar economic system, but if we take a closer look we soon notice that the differences can be important. Freedom in the USA might mean, small government, low taxes, the right to shop 24/7 or the right to own firearms, whereas in Denmark freedom might mean large government, high taxes, free education, free healthcare and a strong social welfare system and the more we dig the more differences we would find.
Organisational culture is no different. As mentioned earlier, each company has a culture made up of smaller sub-cultures, where each one is slightly different from the other. The number of sub-cultures will depend on the size of the company. The larger a company is and the more departments and teams it has, the more sub-cultures there will be. If the company culture isn’t reified on a regular basis, through the use of traditions, shared narratives, practices and symbols the sub-cultures will eventually drift apart and become separate cultures, making collaboration even more difficult and costly.
This is why is it incredibly important to understand what culture is if you want to change it. Understanding what it is and how it works is vital for creating a healthy company culture and working environment, where employees can thrive and grow. Company culture has to be taught to each member of the group in order for them to fit in and function productively.
Thriving, productive employees create thriving and productive companies. When companies invest in their people, they grow their people. Yes, those employees might leave to seek other opportunities, but the entire industry benefits as a result. At some point the skill, the investment comes back. However, if you enter into reciprocal relationships with your employees, treat them well and provide them with opportunity for growth, there is no reason why they would leave. The culture created within is something people will be proud to be a part of, and will want to do their best for, and go that extra mile.
However, as long as industry leaders ignore the fundamentals of culture, the toxicity within the industry will persist as there can be no culture-change without fully understanding and addressing culture and the concepts linked to it.
The Construction Industry Culture Taskforce has developed a world-leading ‘Culture Standard’ for the industry, currently in draft form. The aim of the Culture Standard is to tackle the intertwined issues of worker wellbeing, time for life and diversity and inclusion – all related to the culture of the construction industry. Pilot projects will be commenced in 2022.
 www.cultureinconstruction.com.au . The Taskforce was founded in 2017 by the then members of the Construction Industry Leadership Forum, namely the Australian Constructors Association and the governments of NSW and Victoria.
Guest author: Kevin Porter