Where does culture change start?
As clients tentatively dip their toes in the waters of culture change, they often ask us where it should all start. Improving workplace culture can – and usually does – start anywhere, often with a knee jerk reaction to the most visible issues. Improvement with those issues is often taken as evidence of progress, although any positive change is often temporary.
Culture change should be strategic – and a good strategy will lead to better outcomes and usually lower cost. Effective, meaningful and worthwhile culture change that transforms mediocre organisations into good ones, and good ones into great ones, always starts with some decisions – some specific, strategic, and deliberate choices.
The great news for those organisations asking where cultural change starts is that they are already teetering on the brink of that first decision. They haven’t made it yet, but they are considering it. They may not have even formulated the questions but somewhere in the background they are taking shape. Are we happy with our workplace culture? Does it deliver the outcomes we want in the way we want? Do we – and this is the critical question that should trigger seven decisions – really want to change?
Decision one: A decision about wanting to change workplace culture.
Don’t rush this one even if it seems like a straightforward decision. Don’t just focus on WHETHER you want to change, think very hard about the WHY. When the change process gets challenging – and it will – it is the WHY that will keep you going. The WHY has a direct impact on the degree to which you WANT to change – and will be one of the primary mechanisms to get buy-in from the leaders around you.
Decision two: A decision about your ideal workplace culture.
If you have a mediocre workplace culture, what does good look like? If your culture is already good, what does great look like? Many executive teams that we work with are good at telling us what they have and that they no longer want, but they haven’t put as much time into quantifying what they want.
Take your time over this decision – you are about to make a lot of effort to pursue a new workplace culture. Take the time to make sure you are striving for a defined culture, one you actually want and that will produce the outcomes that are important for the organisation. Don’t settle for superficial cliches – work hard to describe the ideal culture in meaningful and easily communicated terms. Check out our blog post on values.
Decision three: A decision to prioritise the three outcomes that great workplace cultures strive for.
A narrow focus on one type of outcome skews a workplace culture to achieving those outcomes – because they are communicated, intentionally or not, as the priorities. Behaviours that support those outcomes are reinforced. Behaviours that don’t support those outcomes, even highly positive and constructive behaviours, are seen as irrelevant and evenly actively discouraged.
An organisation that pursues bottom line results at all costs is inevitably going to achieve them at the expense of values and to the detriment of team members and customers. An organisation that emphasises people but doesn’t define the results they want to achieve is likely to be a lovely place to work but struggle for success.
Great cultures find ways to simultaneously achieve three outcomes:
- Exceptional experiences for team members
- Outstanding outcomes for the people they serve
- Sustained excellence in bottom line results
Decision four: A decision to be Authentic.
Defining your ideal culture is nice – and an essential start. But ultimately it means nothing unless the organisation – guided by the leaders – is willing to behave in a way that is consistent with that culture.
Check out the Authenticity animation on our website – it’s a great way to understand the culture change process with an investment of less than three minutes. In that animation, we define Authenticity as aligning the things you do, say, think and decide – at all levels of the organisation – with the workplace culture you want to create.
If you aren’t willing to align – if you are going to continue doing, saying, thinking and deciding the same things – stop kidding yourself and settle for the culture you already have because that is the one you are going to keep experiencing.
Decision five: A decision to hold the line.
This is really a decision by the leadership – as a collective – about how committed you are to the culture change.
We can 100% guarantee that commitment will be tested. When you ask people to act in new ways, hold them accountable for things they haven’t been held accountable for in the past, and ask them to strive for new standards, some of them will object. That isn’t evidence that what you are asking is unreasonable – but many executive teams falter at this point. When people object, when a few decide to leave the organisation, when change feels like running through mud, that is the time to patiently persist and absolutely not to falter.
The moment the leadership team backs away from reasonable expectations and standards, the culture you are trying to create is compromised. As a leadership team, accept that change is uncomfortable and may take time – and hold the line. Support people as they bring themselves into alignment but don’t compromise and accept mediocrity.
Your leadership team must agree that you are one in, all in. Commit to helping each other hold the line and to not letting each other down by being the one to give in to pressure.
Decision 6: A decision to be the change you want to see.
When you define your ideal workplace culture (decision 2) and prioritise the three critical outcomes that constitute a great culture (decision 3), you will inevitably identify aspirational standards of performance and behaviour. Those standards are either going to become powerful culture shaping tools or tokenistic bullshit – partly depending on how well you hold the line (decision 5).
It also depends on the way you and other leaders conduct yourselves and the standards you hold yourselves accountable to. Are you exempt from the standards, values and cultural ideals you want to see from others? Or are the leadership team exemplars of them?
Unless you are prepared to live the culture you want to create, even when it is inconvenient, give up now. Cultural change that is not modelled by leaders will not succeed. That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. It does mean you have to hold yourselves to high standards and own it when you fall short.
Decision 7: A decision to invest the required time, energy and resources.
A strategic culture shaping process will identify projects to address the things that cause the gap between the ideal and actual workplace cultures. Some of those projects will require internal low-cost change initiatives – that will require leadership time and the energy to persist when things get difficult. Others will take you away from day-to-day priorities and tasks. Some will require a financial investment.
By approaching culture change in a strategic way, you can forecast the likely costs – in terms of time, money and effort. Then you can decide whether those are commitments you are prepared to make.
Most organisations dive headlong into reactive initiatives to address issues that undermine their workplace culture. By taking a strategic approach, including starting with these seven decisions, your efforts will be more successful and the actual cost will be significantly reduced.