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Changing Company Culture

It’s easy to revise an org chart and restructure your hierarchy. But revising mindsets, behaviors, and attitudes—in other words, your organization’s leadership culture—is much tougher. But it’s vital because culture can make or break your strategy.

Quite often, a leader has a very good sense of the culture of their organization. They just haven’t effectively learned from and discovered how to lead within the culture. Different people in the same organization can have different perceptions of the culture of the organization, especially between the top and bottom levels of the organization. For example, the boss or chief executive may see the organization as highly focused, well organized, and formal. On the other hand, the receptionist might perceive the situation as being confused, disorganized, and maybe even unfeeling.

A good place to start is by deliberately assessing the culture of your organization.

  • Describe the culture of your organization. Consider what you see and hear, not what you feel and think.

  • Who seems to be accepted and who doesn’t? What is it about those who are accepted as compared to those who aren’t?

  • What kinds of behaviors get rewarded? For example, getting along? Getting things done? Other behaviors?

  • What does management pay the most attention to? For example, problems? Successes? Crises? Other behaviors?

  • How are decisions made? For example, by one person? Discussion and consensus? Are decisions made at all?

If your culture needs help (and most do) there are four major ways to influence the culture.

  • Consciously and consistently emphasize what’s important. Communicate the goals of the organization repeatedly, post the mission statement on the wall, and talk about accomplishments.

  • Reward employees whose behaviors display what’s important.

  • Discourage behaviors that don’t reflect what’s important. Don’t punish or make people feel overly uncomfortable. Simply help the employee stop unwanted behaviors by giving constructive feedback, verbal warnings, written warnings, or as a last resort, firing them.

  • Model the behaviors that you want to see. As in parenting, modeling is the most powerful way to influence behavior. For example, if you want to see more teamwork among your employees, then involve yourself in teams more often.

Sometimes we can feel that culture is so hard to change, why should we even try? It is so worth it! It creates momentum, organizational pride, and emotional commitment. Healthy culture makes the team cohesive. So get started!

Remember that deeply embedded cultures and long-held cultures cannot be replaced with simple upgrades, or even with major overhaul efforts. You can’t just “swap it out.” No culture is all good or all bad. Work with what you have,saving the good and strengthening it and positively shaping the areas that need change.

Change behaviors, and mind-sets will follow. Most people will try to change the thinking first, and it almost never works. This is why organizations often try to change mind-sets (and ultimately behavior) by communicating values and putting them in glossy brochures. It just doesn’t work. Doing, not saying, is what works. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting. Changes to key behaviors that are tangible, actionable, repeatable, observable, and measurable are thus a good place to start.

Don’t try to change everything that is not perfect. Focus on a few critical behaviors. Discern a few things people do throughout the company that positively affect business performance, for example, ways of starting meetings or talking with customers. Make sure those are aligned with the company’s overall strategy. Also check that people feel good about doing these things, so that you tap into emotional commitment. Then translate those critical behaviors into simple, practical steps that people can take every day. Next, select groups of employees who will respond strongly to the new behaviors and who are likely to implement and spread them. Encourage them.

Don’t confuse authority with leadership. Deploy your authentic, informal leaders. Authority is conferred by a formal position. Leadership is a natural attribute, exercised and displayed without regard to the organizational chart. Because authentic informal leaders, who are found in every organization, are often not recognized as such, they are frequently overlooked and underused when it comes to driving culture. Look for these leaders and empower and deploy them. Pride builders are master motivators. They generally are close to the front line and often have great insights about the culture and what will lead to improvement. Examplers are role models. They put skin on vital behaviors and others pay attention. They are well-respected peer influencers. Networkers are hubs of personal communication within the organization. They know and influence many people. They can make an idea flow through the organization, and have connections with people who would otherwise never share information. Early adopters love to latch on to new ideas and experiments. Involve them early!

Don’t let your formal leaders off the hook. Every leader is critical. If the formal leaders are not bought in, the general staff will see it and disengage as well. The people at the top have to demonstrate the change they want to see. Here, too, the critical few come into play. A handful of the right kind of leaders have to be on board to start the process.

Connect behaviors to business objectives. When people talk about feelings, motivations, and values, the conversation can often become abstract. To avoid this disconnect, offer tangible, well-defined examples of how cultural interventions lead to improved performance and financial outcomes. Show how it will matter to them.

We live in an age of notoriously short attention spans. When people hear about new high-initiatives and efforts, and then don’t see any activity related to them for several months, they’ll disengage and grow cynical. It is extremely important to show the impact of your efforts on business results as quickly as possible.

Spread your ideas through social media: blogs, Facebook or LinkedIn posts, and tweets, not from senior management, but from some of the authentic informal leaders. Social media can be more effective at spreading information, news, and music than traditional modes of distribution. The same holds true with critical behaviors. People are often more receptive to changes in “the way we do things around here” when those changes are recommended or shared by friends, colleagues, and other associates.

It’s also important to match the new cultural direction with existing ways of doing business. This encourages progress, participation, and positive experiences. Show that you are on task with what has always been effective and important.

Actively manage your cultural situation over time. Companies that have had great success working with culture actively monitor, manage, care for, and update their cultural forces. Even if you have a highly effective culture today, it may not be good enough for tomorrow.

Southwest Airlines stands as an example of a battle-tested company in which culture has been managed over time. Famous for its long-term success in an industry where even the largest players routinely fail, Southwest for 40 years has been energized by a deep sense of pride among all employees. At Southwest, the work on culture is never completed. Just as the airline’s strategy, tactics, and technologies have evolved to cope with a changing external environment, specific HR practices, including informal behaviors, have shifted over time.

Although improving culture is challenging, it is the leader’s responsibility to strive to get the most value out of it. Don’t expect dramatic results overnight. Expect an evolution, not a revolution. But if you approach your culture with respect and intelligence, you can increase your company’s momentum and commitment. There’s no better time to start than now.

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