How UGRs Make or Break Corporate & Workplace Culture

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To change the culture – change the UGRs

Our recent research sought responses to this question:

If the culture of your workplace was to become as good as it realistically could, how much improvement would there be on people’s performance/productivity?

Of senior leaders who responded, 91% felt performance would improve by 20% of more. Of the middle managers who responded, 58% felt performance would improve by 50% or more. These results, show staggering potential for improvement that fall under the direct influence of leaders.

Measures of employee engagement are probably the most commonly used proxy for workplace cultures.

According to a the most recent available data from Gallup, in Australia and New Zealand 24% of employees are engaged, while 60% are not engaged and 16% are actively disengaged. The resulting ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees — 1.5-to-1 — is one of the highest among all global regions and similar (in fact, slightly worse) to results from the U.S. and Canada (1.6-to-1).

The same report notes that in Australia and New Zealand, only 19% of employees in leadership positions are engaged in their jobs.

Of course there are costs associated with disengagement. Gallup estimate that the 16% of Australian employees who are actively disengaged at their workplaces cost the country around $54.8 billion per year.

An earlier report – the 2011 Medibank report titled Sick at Work – calculated that the cost of presenteesim (ie people at work but not fully productive) was $34.1 billion per year

At the heart of the issue of employee engagement – and yet not addressed as much as it could be – is workplace culture. When workplace cultures are productive and positive, engagement and productivity lifts.

One way to explore workplace culture is to consider the notion of UGRs, or unwritten ground rules. UGRs are defined as people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’.

Sample UGRs include:

  • At our meetings it isn’t worth complaining as we know nothing will get done
  • The only time anyone gets spoken to by the boss is when something is wrong
  • The company talks about the importance of service, but we know they don’t really mean it, so we don’t have to worry about it

UGRs drive people’s behaviour yet they are seldom talked about openly. It’s the UGRs that constitute a company’s culture.

A key question that leaders ought to consider is whether the UGRs in their organisation are a function of luck or chance, or whether the prevailing UGRs are by design.

Leading Cultures

Leaders are sometimes oblivious to (and sometimes shielded from) the most prominent places in which UGRs are revealed. Water cooler conversations, meetings after meetings, and conversations at social functions are just a few contexts in which leaders ought to listen and take note.

In addition to tuning-in to the prevailing UGRs, it can be argued that leaders are abrogating a primary responsibility by not explicitly focusing on and leading the culture (and therefore UGRs). Culture needs to be identified as a strategic priority and ownership of it fostered throughout the organisation.