Changing the workplace culture: how to get openness at every level

Changing the workplace culture: how to get openness at every level


We know that staff retention, increased productivity and enhanced reputation are all key to a successful organisation. But so, too, is the need to create an environment where employees can raise concerns without fear of being regarded unfavourably by management, or ostracised by colleagues. At the heart of all of this is a culture of openness. So how easy is this to achieve?First it’s important to understand what an open culture looks like, and then provide staff with the skills to recognise the issues their teams may be facing, however subtle they may be.“Managers need to be trained to be more socially sensitive and socially skilled, to recognise and discuss work and non-work pressures, from shop floor to top floor,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School. “Employees should be able to give feedback if things aren’t going well and not just within their own job, but within the workplace and their own lives.”Not only will this encourage staff to share information, it will also give them the confidence to raise more serious concerns.“Whistleblowing occurs in environments where people are socially sensitive,” he says. “You can get openness at every level by having people with those attributes scattered throughout the company, even if the overall culture is a little closed.”It’s not just up to management to create an open working environment. It can grow from the bottom up too.This means hiring people who are willing to be open, honest and responsive, Cooper adds, noting that recruitment processes within many organisations may need an overhaul.“In the past it’s been all about bottom line performance but the new generation of managers should be recruited for their social and personal skills.”

Attributes to look for, he says, can be “honesty, openness and resistance to change, as well as the way in which individuals behave in a group, in terms of their open and cooperative This openness has the knock-on effect of creating “learning organisations” where people are willing to discuss mistakes and failure.Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, based in Liverpool, is an example of just that. By actively increasing care for staff, it has been able to improve both patient care and productivity.“We take a supporting approach if a staff member raises a concern about something they’ve witnessed,” says Heather Bebbington, director of workforce and organisational development at the NHS trust. “We call it the fair blame approach. There is no recrimination, as listening to that concern could improve patient safety. We are one of the highest reporting trusts in the UK of incidents and near-misses and because of that we have the lowest rate of harm to patients.”The trust worked with the business psychology company Roberston Cooper to create a workplace in which managers coached staff to be open and honest.“Getting them to open up is about building trust in the speaking–up processes as well as relationships. If there is a process in place but nothing happens with it, it’s useless,” says Bebbington.Most organisations – particularly in the public sector – have whistleblowing policies in place, and the NSPCC has just launched a whistleblowing advice line, where professionals can raise concerns over how child protection issues are being handled in the workplace.But it’s not just up to management to create an open working environment. It can grow from the bottom up too. “If at the top there is a closed culture, it doesn’t mean the whole organisation is closed,” explains Cooper. “There are organisations that have started at the shop-floor level and have tried to do things differently, and found that it infects the rest of the organisation.”That’s also reflected in the experience of Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, which has been working with the entire organisation to introduce change.“We have a ‘relationships at work’ group, run by employees,” says Bebbington. “They have been trained in sign-posting and listening skills so if someone has a concern but doesn’t feel comfortable to go to HR or to their team directly, there are nominated individuals equipped to help.”


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