Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber, stepped down as CEO in 2017 after being accused of presiding … [+] over a toxic workplace culture. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Getty Images for Vanity Fair

We hear a lot about organizational culture — usually in a negative way in relation to, say, the early days of the ride-hailing company Uber under former chief executive Travis Kalanick or the run-up to the collapse of the U.K. retail empire of Sir Philip Green. In recent months, there have been efforts to look at the issue more positively in the light of the coronavirus pandemic and the socio-economic and health inequalities that have been exposed by it. With employees encouraged by such campaigns as Black Lives Matter and MeToo to become ever more activist on a range of issues, rising demands for flexible workplaces, worsening divisions between and within communities, and a developing economic and climate emergency, it is hard to argue with David Liddle, author of the just-published Transformational Culture, and his claim that “if there was ever a time to seek out a definition of good company culture, it is right now.”

Liddle makes a decent stab at providing one — building a cultural model around five terms that he believes are central to good organizational culture:

  1. Just. This is where organizations blend the need for accountability with the need to protect relationships and to engender dialogue, learning and growth.
  2. Fair. In such organizations the systems and structures deliver equity, employees’ voices are heard and concerns, conduct, complaints and conflicts are resolved constructively.
  3. Inclusive. Leaders and managers recognize and amplify “the inner brilliance” of all employees.
  4. Sustainable. Organizations minimise harm to the planet while meeting their needs and aspirations.
  5. High-performing. The people in organizations work together with a common purpose to achieve the best possible outcomes for everybody.

His motivation, he says, is growing evidence suggesting that traditional systems and hierarchies — characterized by extensive target setting, rules and regulations — produce negative outcomes for employees. Liddle is an expert in conflict resolution and has for many years led a consultancy advising on this, organisational dynamics and culture. He says the idea of the book is to create a “cultural blueprint” centred on values and people that would be applicable to any organization regardless of size or type. Among the defining characteristics of the Transformational Culture Model are that it makes organisational culture a strategic priority, it offers a truly holistic approach, it uses evidence rather than guesswork to design and deploy the culture and it delivers seven tangible benefits that Liddle calls the 7Cs of transformation. These are Collaboration, Courage, Common Purpose, Communication, Compassion, Curiosity and Connection.

But perhaps what really distinguishes the approach is a cross-functional body — the Transformational Culture Hub — that drives the process through supporting the design, deployment and evaluation of the transformational culture. As Liddle explains, this unit helps everybody involved from the board and senior management to HR line managers, unions and employees themselves connect and collaborate by providing a forum for the exchange of ideas. “The overarching purpose of the hub is to integrate the principles of transformationalism — fair, just, sustainable and high-performing — deep into the organisation, he says.

Given all the attention being afforded such issues as sustainability, fairness and justice — as well as the need for organisations to perform well in order to survive at a time of intense competition — this is all fair enough. Unfortunately, there is a slightly sour note in that Liddle chooses as example of an organization putting people and values first BrewDog, the U.K.-based craft beer maker that has recently been the subject of allegations that its culture was actually one of fear. It has since hired the highly-regarded business figure Allan Leighton as non-executive chairman to provide “experienced counsel on leadership and governance matters” and to act as mentor to CEO James Watt. Asked about the controversy, Liddle responds: “Every organization I have ever worked with has culture-related issues from time to time, including many of the organizations profiled in my book. The measure is how they respond to these challenges and deal with them, rather than the fact that problems have arisen in the first place. Having spoken to BrewDog, I am aware that a lot of work has been done and continues to be done to engage with their people, listen to their concerns and respond constructively. By showing a willingness to have these tough conversations, they are demonstrating the very transformational principles I highlight in the book. I am looking forward to an ongoing dialogue with BrewDog, to help them draw out some of the lessons learned from the situation, so that we can share these in an updated version of their story.” Which seems fair enough. Organizations should not be put off trying to do better for fear of being caught out if they fail.

And Liddle is at pains to point out that he is not setting out to be prescriptive. He urges executives to adapt the ideas to their own situations. But he also warns that achieving the sort of changes he is advocating requires great effort and courage. In particular, he calls on HR to “transform itself into an overarching people and culture function” and to release itself from “the burden of its perceived proximity to management.” HR, he says, should be the function within the organisation that connects employee experience with customer experience, both of which must be great.