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Spring 2020
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CTDO Magazine

Culture Varies

When developing training, don't assume one department's culture represents the entire organization.

We had forgotten to keep our finger on the cultural pulse, and we had also assumed one team's culture was representative of the larger organization.

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As talent development leaders, we must have the discipline to balance staff needs, shifting priorities, and an evolving organizational culture as well as the responsibility to advocate for solutions that solve workplace challenges for individuals, teams, and the organization. When shortcuts present themselves, it can be tempting to travel down that road.

But we must remember to check on the culture before implementing a new training course, program, or initiative. That is one lesson I've learned.

Smooth sailing initially

Several years ago, my team received a request to design and deliver a soft skills training program for a department's most junior staff. The department leader was not only open to a needs assessment, she was expecting one.

Off we went to collect the data, learn about our audience, and identify the learning needs and objectives. In the end, we settled on developing an in-house training program on managing up.

The day of the training course arrived. Everything was ready. The participants settled in with high expectations—they were eager.

About halfway through the training course, I found myself facilitating an open discussion to brainstorm solutions to manage up to their supervisors. I learned even more that day about the team's culture and the challenges team members were all facing in meeting their goals and working with multiple managers who had different work styles and expectations. None of this contradicted our needs assessment data.

The post-evaluation data showed that the training program was well-received and that participants' confidence to manage up had increased as a result. As such, we decided to scale the training course and make it available to the entire organization. We reasoned that the organizational demand was there and it would support our individual contributors in navigating relationships with different managers.

Overlooking culture

The day we facilitated the first organization-wide training program, we discovered we had failed to consider one of the most essential elements for the success of any new initiative: We had forgotten to keep our finger on the cultural pulse, and we had also assumed one team's culture was representative of the larger organization.

Needless to say, participants were frustrated. They questioned why we were training them and not their supervisors and managers.

That question sounds innocuous enough; however, we knew immediately it was a loaded one. There was resentment and frustration in the room.

My co-trainer and I tried to manage the emotions and thought we had succeeded. We explained that supervisors were receiving training, that this was all about relationship management, and that all parties involved had a responsibility.

We made sure to debrief this message in all the learning activities and role plays. Looking at the evaluation results, the data indicated we succeeded in course-correcting.

A few months later, snippets of conversation and other feedback we were receiving informally indicated staff's frustration: "My supervisors aren't receiving training to support me." "How is it fair for me to take responsibility for the success of myself and my supervisor?" "My contributions are not valued." "I am expected to do more than I am officially responsible for."

Those statements were only some of the feedback we were hearing directly and from others. We discovered that many individual contributors were frustrated with their managers' inability to keep projects on schedule.

They resented having to manage up all the time and get stuck on their own work because the manager would not take ownership. And they felt they were set up to fail no matter what.

That feedback reiterated the mistake we had made. In our zeal to scale our talent development offerings, we failed to step back and consider the dynamic and evolving nature of culture.

In this particular case, as noted earlier, we assumed one team's subculture represented the larger organizational culture and that a similar training solution would work for everyone.

We also took shortcuts. We didn't communicate clearly how the training program fit within the larger organizational picture, especially in light of the recent workplace culture survey results.

Our responsibility

A talent development professional or leader needs to always consider the culture and subcultures. The interactions within, between, and across individuals and teams are constantly evolving.

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That requires discipline to distance ourselves from our own experience and interpretation of the culture and look at the system, its components, and its people. In the middle of a million meetings and deadlines, it is not easy to take the time to assess and analyze the organizational culture: the norms, beliefs, and values driving our everyday actions in the workplace.

When we consider the responsibility we bear for growing individuals and driving organizational performance, we carry a heavy burden each day. By the nature of the work we do, our teams are constantly exposed to challenges employees face regularly in the workplace.

We can choose to stay silent, but this would go against our grain. When I hear from numerous employees about similar daily challenges, I make it my responsibility to raise this challenge with other leaders and explore ways to address the problem and support developing new solutions.

The dynamic nature of organizational culture means that we must always be mindful and aware by analyzing and interpreting the data we collect to answer one essential question: What story does the data tell us about the organization's norms, values, and behaviors? 

To answer that question, look at the data you already collect: post-training evaluations, summative training evaluations, Level 3 application surveys or interviews, performance reviews, and behavioral assessments. Consider your day-to-day interactions with staff in meetings, hallways, and kitchens.

Gather with your team to discuss your shared experiences of the organizational culture. Discuss what you all learn from the data and how you are interpreting it.

Whose story is different? Whose story matches? How does that story align with the leadership tells? What are all these stories telling you about the organizational culture?

Use this information to inform your talent development efforts and communicate a message that resonates and takes into account the changing landscape of the organization.

My team's one simple training request reminded me of the importance of always balancing competing demands and not taking shortcuts. I have not forgotten that lesson.

In fact, the culture will not let me forget it. Occasionally, someone reminds me about the outcome of that one training initiative. We have since offered it several more times under a new relationship management objective that more clearly aligns with our evolving norms, values, and beliefs. We can never cut corners in our work; we need the self-discipline to balance a need to meet goals against what is right for a given time period. 

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Natasha Roberts, CPLP, is director of talent development at the Urban Institute. She is responsible for Urban’s talent development strategy and efforts to develop a more robust performance- and learning-driven program for staff that includes enhanced performance management capabilities and e-learning tools. She plans, facilitates, designs, and develops training and development activities to support Urban initiatives.

Before joining Urban, Natasha was a senior associate for training and development at Chemonics International Inc. Before that, she held positions at UNICEF, Kaplan Test Prep, the United States Mission to the United Nations, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. She has expertise in coaching, mentoring, supervising, and designing training programs on topics ranging from management and leadership to budgeting and proposal writing.

Natasha is an active leader in the Metro DC ATD chapter as a board member between 2017 and 2019 and the co-leader of the Instructional Design community of practice since 2016. She received her MA in international relations at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations and is a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP).

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