Changing Culture: One Person at a Time

Culture is defined as “group norms of behaviour and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” For example, look at the typical meetings in your office. Is everyone on time or do meetings usually start five to ten minutes later than schedule?

What about attention to detail? Do final project reports receive a thorough review and commentary or are they filed as received? These scenarios represent organizational culture.

If your employees are stressed, overwhelmed, or procrastinate on deadlines, or if your company is always underperforming, don’t blame your employees. Blame your organization’s leaders.

An organization’s leaders or founders establish values that permeate through the organization and manifest in behaviours. The more these behaviours loop back to the leaders’ own values, the more they are reinforced and perpetuated throughout the organization.

To change an organization’s culture, the leaders must change their own values and behaviours. They can do this by creating a vision for the company and telling the story about how working toward the vision will help the company and its employees grow.

In addition, leaders need to be persuasive and model the behaviour that they wish to see from their employees; frequently engaging in conversations with all staff to “sell” the vision and inspire their staff. This is the correct approach.

An incorrect approach to changing organizational culture is through disincentives such as coercion, threats, or punishment. All of these “power tools” may work to incite change in employees’ or departmental behaviours, but the change is temporary at best. Using power tools to influence cultural change is not sustainable or desirable.

Here are four considerations for changing your organization’s culture to one that is efficient, productive and effective:

  1. Sell the new vision and enlist early adopters and those that are on the fence to join you in selling the vision. Once they do, ensure that they are recognized for their accomplishments.
  2. Don’t just preach about the need for change. Use examples from your company that demonstrate an urgency for change. For instance, have managers take calls from disgruntled customers to understand why customers are cancelling orders at the last minute, leaving the company in the hole by $100,000 for each product design prototype that is not purchased.
  3. Redistribute resources to the 20 percent of areas that produce 80 percent of the company’s results. These are areas where implementing change first will have a tremendous impact organization-wide.
  4. Enlist an individual in your company called a “consigliere” (source: Blue Ocean Strategy). This individual will find out who is fighting change, who is supporting change, and what you need to do to build strategies for sustainable change.

To this last point, a stumbling block to any change initiative is typically an “old guard” mentality that is steadfastly held, usually by long-time employees. Leaders must expect to spend a great deal of time with these individuals to get them to buy into the organization’s new vision, so that they don’t disrupt the new way forward.

Changing an organization’s culture is probably one of the hardest things that leaders will do. It’s a slow process, but the rewards of working in a vibrant company where respect and appreciation of everyone’s time are top of mind will go a long way to ensuring long term organizational and personal success.

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