Culture-building is a Business Imperative Amid COVID-19

July 7, 2020

Crisis tests a business's culture. It also is a good time to create or strengthen a culture.

As hospitals and health services providers grapple with the financial fallout of COVID-19, many newly attuned to their organizations’ vulnerabilities are reimagining their business and reimbursement models.

They shouldn’t stop there.

Disruption from the pandemic offers a window of opportunity for healthcare organizations to also recreate their cultures, building intentional, strong work environments. Creating a strong culture is a business imperative that industry has ignored too long.

While research has consistently shown organizations with strong cultures aligned to their strategic goals are far more likely to meet and exceed big-picture objectives, most hospitals have never prioritized culture-building. Instead, they’ve allowed dysfunction to permeate and reveal itself in myriad ways. These include workforces increasingly defined by anxiety, fear and mistrust of leadership; physician practices and leadership misaligned with enterprise strategy or optimal care delivery; and a lack of connection to purpose, mission and values.

When COVID-19 began to send waves of patients seeking emergency care, many organizations that had long ignored culture began to grapple with troubling and distracting issues. News outlets reported that front-line hospital workers faced disciplinary action for speaking with the media about employee safety. In addition, shortages of PPE revealed nation-wide supply chain challenges that impacted some hospitals more than others.

In comparison, organizations with cultures that value trust and engagement have been able to rise to the challenges presented by the pandemic, tapping into communication, innovation, leadership and response strategies to adapt and “leapfrog” into new ways of thinking and operating. They remain best positioned to survive and thrive in spite of the disruption and distress.

Fortunately, healthcare organizations face few barriers to investing in transforming their cultures; in fact, today’s crisis presents an opportunity to engage in this important work. Leaders can use the current disruption to find and fix the fractures in their systems while identifying new breakthroughs in thinking and action that will significantly position their organizations for success now and in the future.

Healthcare leaders looking to engage in culture-building amidst COVID-19 can begin by focusing on four specific imperatives:

  • Rapid decision-making, the ability of teams to “check as they go,” allowing them to move quickly and responsively. Building this into an organization’s culture can ensure it can best accomplish such goals as pilot testing telehealth models, moving quickly to provide reimbursement, and loosening restrictions on building licenses to allow for more effective crisis management and more flexible care delivery.
  • Whole person invitation, the recognition that success requires winning the hearts and minds of one’s people daily. Cultures that truly welcome and support the wholeness of their people – allowing room for individual differences while aligning on purpose – are most able to inspire trust and even love, an imperative for an industry that requires its people to risk their lives on the job.
  • Clarity as an on-going exercise, an emphasis on action-learning and feedback over command and control. Organizations that make this central to their cultures — part of daily huddles and/or regular department meetings — are better able to shift roles, communications and oversight to meet the evolving demands of an outbreak.
  • New indicators of value, the ability to shift from siloed views of the balance sheet to an Enterprise view of financial success. This can be applied to such matters as budget exercises that have too long revealed themselves as turf battles.

Some championing culture-building might come across resistance among stalwarts of traditional paradigms, especially those who subscribe to the belief of heroic leadership, the perception that problems are solved by extraordinary individuals rather than cultures and systems that have been designed in specific, intentional ways.

While it is true that extraordinary, heroic leaders can certainly devise solutions to thorny problems, too often these fixes yield only immediate relief and leave deeper fractures unresolved. What’s more, some problems, such as COVID-19, are so enormous that they require nothing less than the full support and participation of an organization’s people working together in lockstep. Of course, the bedrock of such collective efforts is an organization’s culture.

Leslie Solomon, Ph.D., is director of healthcare at FMG Leading in San Diego.  She has more than 25 years of experience in healthcare leadership development, talent management, quality process improvement, change and transformation.