I was just reading about our City of Nanaimo local government implementing a project to improve their organizational culture. And while it’s certainly admirable to want to improve – it makes me wonder about the expectations on such a large undertaking. Can a long established organizational culture truly be changed? And more importantly – should it! When is it more appropriate to just isolate and work on those few problems? Let’s start by looking at what we mean by the terms organizational culture, corporate culture, business culture and/or workplace culture.
What is organizational culture
There is a lot of buzz about organizational culture. It seems that many are finally becoming aware of just how powerful it is for business success. And while we would all like to “fix” our workplace culture – it is a very complex and interwoven into the very essence of our business. Like an individual’s personality and identity, it is deeply rooted in history and values.
Frederick A. Starke and Robert W. Sexty describe Organizational Culture in their book Contemporary Management in Canada (third addition) as: “the shared philosophy, ideology, values, assumptions, beliefs, expectations, and attitudes that knit an organization together”
Charles W.L. Hill and Gareth R. Jones, in their book Essentials of Strategic Management define organizational culture as: “The set of values, norms and standards that control how employees work to achieve an organization’s mission and goals.”
Culture, values and behaviours
I conducted considerable research on both organizational and national culture (and the relationship between them) during my MBA. And the bottom line – is that it’s quite complex! But let’s start with first looking at each term.
Behaviour is observable and usually measurable. So when we talk about corporate or business culture, we often mean the collective behaviours of an organization. For example – we may say a culture is rigid because they demonstrate a lot of strict rule following. Or we may say a culture is innovative because they encourage creativity and allow for mistakes. We can observe the behaviours and make some interpretation at the values behind the culture, but we don’t truly know.
Values are deeply held beliefs. For example – most individuals highly value respect. But consider how respect can be demonstrated differently in different cultures? In the west, we assume that eye contact is important to show respect when talking to another. But in some cultures, looking someone directly in the eye can be seen as aggressive behaviour.
What does this mean for changing your organizational culture?
As I mentioned, workplace culture is often defined by the observable behaviours. And these behaviours are usually based on the values held by a company. BUT, these values can be either conscious or unconscious! So for example – we may want to say that we value innovation. But if our culture has been based on a belief that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs – we may continue to send messages that inhibit innovation. Until we can truly deal with that unconscious value of risk avoidance, can we really expect our desired new culture to emerge?
Another challenge comes, as I mentioned, in very different interpretations of how a value is demonstrated. So if we merely say that we want to be innovative, each employee may have a very different interpretation of what kind of behaviours are consistent with innovation. Some may see it as a slow and methodical process of Research and development. While others might see it as creative mastermind sessions.
Which comes first – the value or the behaviour?
From most of my research, I would have assumed that values drive behaviour. And in fact they can! But I found this very insightful piece of work which I use in my Change Leadership Course. Sociologist Jeni Cross, in her video Three Myths of Behaviour Change demonstrates how behaviour can influence values. I highly recommend that you watch this TED talk to challenge your thinking on this.
But for those that just want to jump ahead – she was able to demonstrate that behaviour influences values! So if we can guide people to the behaviours that we want to display, perhaps their values will follow? This is monumental, as changing behaviour in the workplace should be simpler than changing values! Consider how we can demonstrate and then reinforce the positive actions that we want to see. You could build it into your performance planning and management.
So where do we start with changing organizational culture?
I believe the first step is in becoming aware of our existing culture. We need to understand the ingrained values (both conscious and unconscious) before moving forward to create a new culture. If we try to just layer a new culture on top of the old – those unconscious values are going to thwart our progress.
Does this take some time and effort? ABSOLUTELY! But think about the wasted effort and frustration if you attempt to build a new culture on top of old values and behaviours. It’s like trying to build a new house on an old (perhaps rotting?) foundation. It may look good at first, but things may start to crumble!
What specific things to we need to know about our existing organization culture?
We can start with observable behaviour. And we want to focus on all aspects – both positive and negative. We need to do a 360 degree review of our organization for 2 reasons:
- To identify our strengths that we can build on (and make sure we don’t lose a core competency)
- To identify the problem behaviours and look for their roots
We need to be open to seeing both the strengths and weaknesses objectively. Rather than playing the “blame game” for problems, see them as an opportunity to get to the root and remove them.
Be realistic with changing organizational culture
Can you truly go from a risk averse, highly structured organization to one that is creative and innovative? These are just examples to show two extremes. But you do need to consider how far away you are from your target culture. Do you have the strengths, resources and energy to truly go that distance? Or is there another position that is more suitable? In my example – maybe you find a more balanced culture with “just enough” rigidity.
Any business transformation takes significant effort and can be quite stressful. And with changing the workplace culture, you are essentially changing the identity of your organization. How will that affect employees? Stakeholders? The community? You need to consider each of these and ensure you have the resources and skills for leading successful business transformation.
And of course, beware of the “me too” syndrome of jumping on the bandwagon with the latest fad or trend in organizational culture. After all, we don’t all need to be innovative! Maybe you just need to change some smaller aspects of your existing corporate culture?
So can organizational culture be truly changed?
It certainly can, and has been done successfully in many cases. But as I hope you can appreciate, it can be a long and complex process. Or sometimes it happens quickly when an organization must rapidly change to survive. But it takes strong leadership and often tough decisions to get there.
Some of the key steps involved for changing your workplace culture:
- Assess your current organizational culture
- Identify your target organizational structure (based on your vision, mission, strategy….)
- Conduct a gap analysis
- Develop and implement a Change Management/Business Transformation initiative
- Reinforce the desired new behaviours
In summary, we need to think of changing organizational culture as much more than just a project. It really is about changing our identity, and there is no quick fix! Perhaps you can start by digging into the specific real problems that are plaguing your organization before undertaking a complete remake of your organizational culture?
Do you have an example of a positive organizational culture change? Please share your thoughts on what worked well.
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