Mystique of Culture

Canadian culture is frequently seen in comparison to the US.  It is described as a more polite version of the American culture due to our penchant for saying I’m sorry, having some oddities to our language including the use of the words “toque” and “Eh”, again in comparison to the Americans, and being otherwise very similar, though generally quieter and gentler than our southern neighbors.

While all of those things are descriptors of components of culture they don’t really provide a solid understanding of culture and how it is formed.  The sociological definition in the Oxford Dictionary begins, “culture refers to the symbolic element of social life …”  which is a bit esoteric.  We typically describe culture as the shared values, beliefs, goals, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people.  That group can be small – like a nuclear family, larger – like an organization, or even larger – ike a country.

Culture is dynamic.  Culture influences peoples’ values, beliefs, goals, assumptions,  attitudes, and behaviours.  As people internalize the norms of culture we are changed.  As we change we cause our culture to change, and then we change again as we adapt.  People and culture are mutually constituting.

Culture will form as a result of what we do and do not do.  If we establish a set of rules (like stopping for red lights) and hold people accountable for conforming to those rules the culture will establish those behaviours as norms of the society.   When we permit bad behaviour (like accepting lateness for meetings or ignoring derogatory comments) we are accepting incivility and discrimination as societal norms.

What are some of the cultural artifacts that make us Canadian and different than Americans?



What differences would you add?

Want to learn more about culture changes in the workplace?

There is still space in our Culture Management Session on September 25th.  The purpose of our session is to discuss changes that have recently taken place in the regulatory and social environments and share ideas about their implications for organizations and the people who work in them.

My colleague, Kellie Donohue and I will be talking about change factors, the priorities for organizations, and will also touch on managing risk including from the perspective of supervisors in a world where they are accountable for psychological safety on the job.  You can register here:

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“The Times They Are A-Changin”

When thinking about this blog I googled this iconic 1960’s song because it seemed to be relevant for today.  It turns out Bob Dylan thought so too.  He has written a 2018 version.

Lately I’ve been working with my friend and colleague, Kellie Donohue, on a culture management session we are holding in September.  The purpose of our session is to discuss changes that have recently taken place in the regulatory and social environments and share ideas about their implications for organizations and the people who work in them.

We think our session is important because the changes taking place establish a different expectation for physical, social and psychological well-being at work.  At the individual level, it means incorporating new expectations into our thinking and action.  At the organizational level, it is a clear signal for seeing culture management as a key strategic priority with the same level of risk management as all the other major operational priorities.

Kellie and I will be talking about change factors, the priorities for organizations, and will also touch on managing risk including from the perspective of supervisors in a world where they are accountable for psychological safety on the job.  You can register for our breakfast seminar at:

P.S.  Curious about the original version of Dylan’s song?

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Minimum Wage Rates 2016


In 1914 Henry Ford, a known anti-socialist, anti-union industrialist did the unthinkable.  Henry doubled the wages paid to his auto manufacturing company employees.

Henry Ford did that for two reasons: turnover was a problem in the industry and he needed to increase the size of his market.   Henry’s plan worked.  By driving up pay for production workers, he increased their buying power and made the cars they were making affordable for them.  The middle class in the US grew substantially and the standard of living improved for the entire country.  Henry Ford’s company did grow and he became much, much wealthier.

This fall in Canada, minimum wage rates are increasing in a number of provinces – though not quite like Henry Ford’s 1914 increase –  with lots of public backlash.   The biggest argument against doing so is that our economy is struggling, unemployment is high and paying people more will make things worse.   That ‘feels’ like it makes sense and many people argue it does.  Henry Ford disagreed and so does research on the creation of healthy economies and societies.

According to the Stats Canada Labour Force survey data (2014) about 7.2%[1] (1.5 million people) of Canada’s workforce earns minimum wage.  About 60% of those are women, approximately 45% are 25 years old and older and about 45% work for companies with more than 500 employees.  In Canada, minimum wage is lower than the living wage for every major city for which data is available.

Following is information on the Minimum Wage Rates and the Living Wage Rates [2].


  2. To learn more about living wage rates:


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The Talent Era

There are more than 50 million articles that include Talent in their search terms according to Google.  The articles include definitions and information about attracting, retaining and rewarding and, of course, the importance of engagement in maximizing the contribution Talent makes to organizational success.

Blog Image June 2016Why add another voice to this already overwhelming amount of material?

In my research into workforce talent and in particular Key Talent – those people critical to the achievement of organizational success –  I didn’t find what I was looking for.  I wanted something that goes beyond theory and statistics about what is important.  I wanted innovative practical ideas and examples for today’s complex environment where:

  • profitability is dependent on attracting and retaining, and obtaining maximum return from each individual;
  • the extent of the individual’s capacity isn’t easily discerned, and
  • subjective factors like engagement, satisfaction, and appreciation impact motivation and productivity.

Because I didn’t find what I wanted I went to work on creating it.

Over the next few weeks, I will share some of my thinking about human resource management in the Talent Era in a series of white papers.  The first one, which can be accessed through the following link, provides background and sets the stage for the practical approaches provided in the following papers.

The Talent Era

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Remote Work and Productivity

In December a Financial Post Workplace Law column on Absenteeism indicated that Working From Home, Smoke Breaks and Stress Leave were, in the opinion of the writer, the three leading causes of lost productivity in 2015.

Having Working From Home on that list surprised me so I did a bit of checking to see what others had to say about it.  Harvard Business Review (January-February 2014)  ran an article about a research study on working from home – it is entitled “To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work From Home”.

A study on the effectiveness of telecommuting reported on in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Vol 16, #2,  2015) found that it reduces stress, increases worker satisfaction and organizational commitment and improves overall performance.

Yahoo made headlines last year when their CEO decided to eliminate remote working in order to improve productivity and collaboration.

My quick check on remote work was a good reminder – in order to achieve good productivity in remote work situations a number of factors must be in place:

  • The job needs to be suitable for remote work
  • The person must be comfortable with and capable of the remote work relationship
  • Managers have to have the managerial skills and confidence necessary to manage people they ‘can’t see’
  • Good working conditions (space, equipment, etc.) and a positive work environment(healthy organizational culture with clear expectations and good communication channels) and appropriate and effective work processes all need to exist
  • Remote workers should be involved in workplace activities and be physically present in the workplace on a regular basis.

I am inclined to believe that, whether the person is a remote worker or an on-site worker, productivity is affected most by whether or not the individual believes their work is meaningful and their effort and results are appreciated and matter.  I am also inclined to believe that if that is true, absenteeism isn’t a problem.

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Leading in A Changing World

The future’s in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change

– Wind of Change, The Scorpions (1990)

Over the last three weeks I’ve been involved in a variety of events and conversations about leading and managing in today’s world.   A couple of weeks ago, at the Canadian Management Consultant’s one day conference, Todd Hirsh talked about the current economic situation, the global economy and Canada’s role in it.  In her presentation, one of Deb Yedlin’s messages was Canada’s need to improve our learning so that we have the ability to compete in the global economy. They both carried the message of global interdependence and the multiplying effects of multiple interconnected major forces of change – globalization, urbanization, demographic and of course, technology.

Last week, I attended a members Lunch ‘n Learn discussion about diversity in boardrooms held by the Institute of Corporate Directors.  The conversation in my group quickly moved from talking about gender and ethnic diversity to diversity of thought as the valuable addition to organizational leadership.  A very strong voice in the group declared that diversity is important but cannot usurp the importance of considerable C-suite problem solving experience in boardrooms. The expressed belief was that solving the complex problems organizations face today requires that experience and the knowledge gained from it.   The message I took from this conversation was that all of us working in leading roles must step back and assess whether or not we have the ability and skills required in a world of disruptive change.   In his book, Deep Change, Robert Quinn talks about the difference between incremental change where leaders feel in control and have the potential to return to the way we did things and transformative change, where  there is no return and requires surrendering control.

Yesterday, I was involved in a conversation about a new leadership team moving in a direction that was being undermined by a long term management team determined to protect their interests.    Managers’ roles are to ensure the efficacy of transactional activity and when they don’t, things can go badly wrong.


They are the guardians of the culture that has brought the organization to its current level of achievement. Cultural change requires a disruption of the basic assumptions that underlie stated values, norms and acceptable behaviour and artifacts. Left undisturbed those basic assumptions will continually support restoration of transactional level activity to its normal state.

In a world where certainty, predictability, clarity and simplicity are absent, leaders must let go of personal success and focus on organizational success. They must create a culture of creativity and innovation.  To do that, they must also let go of the notion that they know the answers, listen to and involve others, inspire a shared vision and purpose, and enable and empower people. Quinn likens transformational leadership to “walking naked into the land of uncertainty”.

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Not really thinking about voluntary turnover these days?

Increasing unemployment rates drives voluntary turnover down, so it is easy to think voluntary turnover is not really a top of the list concern these days (the silver lining in the current environment?!).

This morning I saw some information that suggests it still should be. The article suggested that by 2018 – 2020  average turnover rates could range from 13% – 23% a year.   Those levels probably look like a pipe dream to service industry organizations where turnover is much higher and are terrifying to  environments where turnover is significantly lower.

It is well-known and understood that employee turnover is expensive – it costs between 50% and 150% of salary depending on the job.   The aging population is driving the rate of voluntary turnover up.  Each year, as the boomers age, there will be more people choosing to leave their jobs and the workforce.

For a 100 employee company with an average salary of $41,600 ($20.00/hr for a 40 hour work week) an annual turnover rate of 5%, turnover will cost the company at least $104,000 per year.  If we use the Canadian national average annual salary of $49,000, the 5% turnover rate, at the 50% of annual salary cost,  that number becomes $122,500.

Increase the turnover rate to 10% – well below those 2018 – 2020  projections – and use Alberta’s annual average salary of $60,476 (at December 31, 2014)  the very conservative turnover cost  of 50% of salary will  result in turnover costs $300,000/year for a 100 employee company.  At a cost 100% of salary that number is more than $600,000/year and at 150% it is upwards of $900,000/year.

It is easy to think this is something that can wait – today’s issues are more pressing.    The solutions to today’s issues can establish the foundation for minimizing future challenges or they can ensure the future challenges will be more significant. Balancing the urgency of today’s issues with the importance of tomorrow’s is possible when there is a well thought out plan in place for doing so.

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“No good work goes unpunished” ….

…. said a friend of mine in a moment of pure frustration a while back.  The thought returns to me now and then – this time in regard to Canada Post’s suspension of the super box program.  Their great change management process couldn’t prevent the backlash around home delivery.  Pity!

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Canada Post – Change Master!

Up until last week we have had home mail delivery.   Now we are picking up our mail from a super-box about a block away.

Canada Post has done a magnificent job of preparing us and our neighbours for this change. We received our original notice about it early this year. Over the last 8 months we’ve been provided a process map and ongoing status reports.   About a week before we started using the super-box we were provided an information package about it along with our keys.   Our postal delivery person was well informed about the process and timing; provided information and answered questions.

A couple of days before we started using the super-box we happened upon the Canada Post team who were checking the postal box assignment to addresses and their master list. They spent a few minutes chatting with us about the service change indicating the positive attributes of it and letting us know that no one at Canada Post was losing a job as a result of the service change and that individuals who were not able to get to the super-boxes would continue to receive home mail delivery.

All in all the management of this change was handled perfectly. We were informed early about the change, were provided with great information over the months between notification and implementation and the service providers we regularly interact with were well informed and shared information well.

Over the years Canada Post has been one of those organizations we’ve loved to grumble about.   This is not our old Canada Post and we couldn’t be happier.

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(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Organizational Satisfaction surveys are intended to provide information about whether the company is successfully creating a work environment in which employee expectations are adequately fulfilled.   The underlying assumption is that satisfied employees will be more productive overall and less likely to leave the organization.

In essence, satisfaction surveys are being used as a proxy for trying to understand how to engage employees in the work they do and in the mission and goals of the companies they work for.   Engagement – the state of employee involvement desired by companies – is not the same as satisfaction and identifying it requires different metrics.

The craving for engagement expressed in this verse of Satisfaction:

He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to drive my imagination.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards

Engagement produces creativity, productivity and both emotional and mental commitment.  Engagement is “being in the zone”,  or “a state of flow1” which becomes possible when there is a balance of a high level challenge and skill, clear purpose, immediate and unequivocal  feedback and concentration on the work.   Intrinsic satisfaction is exceptionally high when an individual is engaged.

Building an Engaged Workforce is an HR Trend that has been around for a while and is likely to stay for some time because studies have indicated that when people are genuinely engaged (not just satisfied), productivity and profitability increase, shareholder value increases and attraction and retention of key talent improves.

(1 A State of Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work on work, motivation and happiness describes the condition as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.)

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