Successful programs require a healthy culture

by Dr. Mark Bojeun

Program Management requires a partnership with project managers to create a culture of success for the program and the individual teams. This is often very difficult as each project manager will create a project culture that aligns with their preferred communications and management styles.  

Even in the best of days, this is a challenge, but in today’s world of a global pandemic, social distancing, societal anxiety, mass unemployment rates, civil protests, and discourse on race relations, a safe and healthy environment is even more difficult to build and maintain. With our collocated teams now joining remote workforces, there is an even greater distance between them, and, therefore, the cultural values that have been historically relied on can find themselves under pressure. Adding to that, the pressures of families sheltering together, or isolation for those sheltering alone, create an environment of increased complexity. Communications, partnering, reactions to risks, and overall anxiety create an environment of greater fear, risk adversity, conflict, and negativity.  

Culture is the acceptable behavior that a group operates within, following norms, values, ethics, and behavior. A healthy culture is one that empowers individuals to identify ideas, ask for assistance, communicate freely, and interact with others in a manner that they deem to be safe from negative reactions and able to drive to success.  

More simply stated, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate” (Gruenert and Whitaker, 2015).  

Regardless of the best-intentioned discussions, conversations, desires, or mottos, culture ends up being the worst behavior tolerated by the leadership. If a team member is hostile to new ideas, and the leader does not immediately correct that hostility, a new norm is established. When a team member reacts to an issue by blaming another team member, a new norm is established. When team members arrive late to meetings, or not at all, and the reaction is to either excuse or ignore, this becomes acceptable behavior for the entire team. 

As the world closed, and teams had to move to a remote working environment, these bad behaviors became more pronounced. Interactions and interpersonal behaviors became more difficult to directly observe and, consequently, to correct. Therefore, the leader has had to proactively reinvest their efforts to monitor, enforce, and reward behaviors they deem healthy and safe. Otherwise, the interactions result in a new set of norms that can stifle creativity, restrict conversation, and increase adversity to risk, ultimately resulting in an ineffective team culture.  

To ensure that the culture of a program is maintained, each manager needs to take the time to proactively work with teams and individual members. These interactions facilitate a more effective enforcement and monitoring of cultural factors, providing an impetus for action when indicated. The top steps to reinforce and encourage a healthy culture for Program and Project Leaders would include: 

  1. Have the difficult conversations – Immediately provide feedback to individuals and redirect their behavior. Anything that is allowed to occur has the potential to create negative behaviors that can self-replicate among team members.
  2. Structure relationship building into day-to-day conversations – Spend time opening the dialog up for interpersonal conversation, check in with individuals and teams to ensure that they are feeling safe and that they are valued.
  3. Listen and observe – Remote meetings allow managers to spend some time listening. Remember that the greater your presence, the greater the team will perform differently when alone. 
  4. React to issues- Any concern vocalized should result in some action. Each concern has value, and the absolute worst thing a leader can do is excuse a complaint by saying, “That’s just how Fred is.”
  5. A healthy culture is a conscious choice – Invest, check in, evaluate, and survey.  

The success of any team is based on the leader’s ability to motivate, focus, and interact with their team members. The only way information flows effectively is through a healthy culture where anyone can raise concerns, and messengers are empowered to share the bad news. A healthy culture requires an investment, but an unhealthy culture evolves naturally, so every leader must remain focused on building, growing, and maintaining a culture of success.  

The more proactive and conscious a leader is, the better they are able to respond to an increasingly complex set of factors while still maintaining productivity and delivering success.


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