The way we do things around here

Culture, in essence, is ‘the way we do things around here’. It doesn’t matter what you say you want it to be, it’s what you do that paints the true picture. Scruffy staff canteens with notice boards plastered in “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that” notices tell of a different culture than “people are our greatest asset” written on glossy posters framed on reception area walls. CEOs espousing “we pride ourselves on innovation” is incongruent with people losing their jobs as a result of failure when trying something different.

Culture is the lived experience of working in the business. Every company has a culture whether they like it or not. The question is, is the way people do things appropriate for the strategy of your business? If not, then either change your focus to reflect the culture or change the culture to reflect your ambition. The former is a lot easier than the latter.

Here are five suggestions that will help when seeking to change the culture of an organisation.

1: Communicate

Let’s be clear – communication won’t change behaviour, or at least not very much. But it is an essential part of building the understanding about why things have to change, the progress being made and a powerful mechanism for building a groundswell of feeling that things are different. Communication can help shift mindsets. For example, by finding examples of work being done that do demonstrate the required culture and communicating that story to the wider business you shift the thinking from ‘can we or can’t we’ to ‘how do we make the behaviour more common across the business?’ 

2: Help people learn how to behave in the way you want

It’s all well and good telling people why things need to change, but if they don’t understand how to do things differently then it is a wasted effort. The process of teaching people is a great way of ensuring you have thought through what it is you expect people to do. It means translating bland statements such as “communicate more” into practical actions such as holding Town Hall meetings, or sending out newsletters packed with success stories of where people have embraced the change and delivered improved results. Whilst face to face training programmes are a useful vehicle for this, there are many other ways it can be achieved. Examples include line managers running their own development sessions, providing videos explaining what’s required or one-to-one coaching. The best method is demonstrating through example – behave in the way you are expecting others to do. Be the role model that leads by example. This is critical, particularly for the leadership of the business.

3: Create the right context

Context is the biggest driver of behaviour. People do what’s in their best interests and what gets measured. By building into performance objectives the behaviours you expect people to demonstrate and linking that to pay and reward it is very much in the individual’s interests to behave in the right way. Other contextual drivers include recognition for great examples of behaviour that reflect the desired culture. Finding symbolic changes to illustrate how important the right culture is – for example, moving leaders from private offices into the general working area to create a sense of one team and a belief that “we’re all in this together”. Insisting any meeting to solve a business issue is attended by people from across the business in order to develop cross functional understanding and to eliminate silo thinking is another useful contextual driver.

4) Don’t boil the ocean

Changing a culture is hard work. Don’t try and do everything at once. Pick your battles. Work out which things are likely to deliver the best bang for your buck. In the first instance make sure your leadership team is on board. Help them to understand what’s required. Get them to work out what it would mean for them in the way they lead and manage others. Give them a chance to practise doing things differently so they can gain valuable insights into how to do it successfully. These insights will provide the confidence, knowledge and enthusiasm to help the next layer of managers understand what’s expected. This matters. A colleague explaining from personal experience how they managed to create the right culture is often more compelling than any number of outside experts coming in and telling them how to do it.

5) What’s the business case 

Above all, be clear about the problem solved by creating a different culture. Help people understand the business imperative that necessitates the change. Make sure that the drive towards a different culture will ultimately make the organisation more successful. Changing culture for the sake of it is an exercise in time wasting and an incredibly effective way of disengaging people. 

A word of warning. Culture change is hard work and can take a long time. Attempting culture change without a genuine belief in why the new culture is needed and a sense of the prize at the end is likely to end in failure. Worse still, senior leaders espousing change but failing to change themselves is a great recipe for disengaging the workforce. It leads to cynicism, a breakdown in trust and a loss of respect. As a final example, I recall an occasion when a senior leader at a financial organisation held a Town Hall” in London at which he announced some re-engineering/cost-cutting initiatives designed to save millions of dollars and how “we would all have to tighten our belts” and look under every stone to eliminate unnecessary costs, it would be difficult and uncomfortable.” Nothing extraordinary about any of that, we’d all seen similar things many times……but he arrived on the corporate jet to tell us this.

© 2019 Dominic Irvine. All rights asserted.

First published in BDaily News on 19 December 2019