So you want to reshape your culture. Where do you start?

Why can starting the journey to reshaping your organisational culture feel so daunting? 

For me, the answer is simple. HR professionals who are tasked with spearheading this transformational endeavour can face numerous challenges and sometimes navigating these can be tricky. 

With this in mind I reflected on the debate I had with Lizzie Benton in my recent podcast and draw together some key themes and suggestions for charting a course through your potential culture change landscape.

The way things are done around here.

I must admit that we can take a very academic definition of organisational culture or a fairly straight forward one. As Lizzie and I discussed, it can often be subjective and misrepresented. Some senior decision-maker says there’s a need to ‘do something’ about their organisational culture but there is uncertainty about what it all means. 

Organisational psychologists talk of the values, assumptions, style, climate, atmosphere, norms, and observable attributes associated with a particular organisation or group. More often than not employees discover their organisations implicit culture through the ways people behave towards each other. People can have differing view about what culture actually means informed by their lived experience. 

Simply put, culture is “the way things are done around here.” And, of course, these behavioural norms may or may not be aligned with the company’s stated values.

Often, culture change is confused with instigating social events, providing free drinks and fruit in meeting rooms or having a range of employee benefits such as reduced gym membership. These tangible attributes may be welcomed by employees, but thinking it’s going to make a difference to the lived experience is an exercise in self-deception. 

Misalignment between organisational values and behaviours.

There are plenty of examples around of misalignment. Take the case of a CEO who says the company values innovation and creativity. 

They are adamant these organisational values are strategic imperatives, but senior manager’s immediately respond to any volunteered creative idea with: “It won’t work.” 

Or take a banking corporate centre that expects frontline staff at branches to engage in more consultative (and time consuming) dialogue with customers, only to have the branch manager quietly mouth “hurry up” from behind the customer queue.  

Understanding that all organisations have a culture, helpful or hindering, is a key starting point.  So conducting an assessment to identify gaps between espoused values and behaviours before addressing them through targeted initiatives that reinforce congruence is important. 

Cultural misalignment can be compounded when the communication about the organisations culture gets too wrapped up in marketing and PR exercises. This pretending to the external world that a certain type of culture exists when internally it’s not the reality experienced by employees can turn into the worse type of culture-washing.

Understanding an organisations readiness for culture change

Recognising that culture change is not a quick or short term fix is critical.  Speed seems to have become a watch word of business life, but intentionally culture shaping by design is a journey rather than a quick fix and requires deep conversations at all levels of the organisation. 

Depending on the size and complexity of an organisation, it has to be recognised that changing the direction of travel can be a major challenge. The old analogy of the fully laden cargo vessel in mid Atlantic changing direction on the Captains orders illustrates the point.

The greater the degree of change the longer its going to take to move the ship towards its new heading. What is required is a wider view of the factors that need to be addressed in order to affect a noticeable change. Frank discussions need to be held about the true level of commitment that exist at a senior level, as well as a view of what success might look like.

So where can you start in reshaping organisational culture?

I probably bore people to death with my saying that every enterprise is ultimately a human enterprise. As such, culture change needs to appreciate the existing human system of the organisation. 

If senior leaders want to affect a change in culture it’s always useful to get them to begin by describing the ideal culture they want to develop and their rationale for it. How do they perceive it will impact business strategy?

This creates some fabulous conversations that clarify just how they view organisational culture and how they perceive the new culture will actually support strategy execution. Afterall, they’re not doing it because of some kind of benevolent altruism. Or are they?

Given, too, that it will require a shift in organisational behaviour I like to run workshops with senior leaders exploring the drivers of the behaviour they want to see. 

As we know, our feelings and emotions at work influence how we behave, so a great fundamental question to provoke the thinking is “How would you like your employees to feel (and not feel) at work?” This is a great starting point in culture reshaping because we can then explore the kinds of behaviours that would support (and stifle) the emotional climate they want to create.

With this as a starting point we can start getting down and dirty with some diagnostics of the current situation. Along with assessing whether organisational values are clearly defined, understood and lived by employees throughout the organisation, it’s worth investigating how current organisational behaviours show up day to day. 

How do people interact? What is communication and collaboration like across the business? How do decisions get made and at what level in the organisation?  How does information flow in the business and how is feedback given and received?

These factors usually throw up really interesting data, but getting a sense of employees lived experience is important too, so employee engagement or satisfaction surveys are helpful here. Typically, I would also pose questions about how the current organisational structure supports the desired culture.

Role modelling what you want from the top.

Let’s not forget the significant shadow cast by leaderships style.

A simple question to ask is the extent leaders at different levels in the business actively promote and model the desired culture. How do they set expectations, empower and hold people to account? And maybe more importantly, how do they inspire their teams? 

Leadership behaviours, culturally effective or ineffective, set the tone of the business. They determine what’s really important, what get’s paid attention and focused on. Implementing some kind of intervention that focuses on leadership style and how its supports the desired culture, in my experience, is usually a good idea. But I wouldn’t necessarily start there straight away.

Getting a clear fix on the shape, nature and size of the potential challenges faced by senior decision-makers and HR professional when considering building or reshaping their organisational culture is a real must.

By holding a magnifying glass to all these criteria of organisational culture, we can get a much more comprehensive understanding of what we are trying to achieve. 

Organisational culture can then be shaped by design, intentionally and by stepped progression. You can’t eat the elephant of organisational culture all in one go. But maybe you can it eat bit by bit, and intentional create the kind of company culture that your people and customers love. It’s worth doing. The rewards are enormous.

For more information about our solutions in organisational culture, leadership, teams and employee engagement contact us. We’d love to have the conversation.

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