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5 tips for implementing a change to organisational culture

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

Organisational Culture Write Way Up Communication

I was always told there were two things in life that were certain; death and taxes. After working across many businesses, from boutiques to multi-nationals, over the last fifteen years, I want to add one more to the list; organisational change.

I know right, putting change on a list of things that are constant and predictable? Crazy? But it's not. Regardless of the business I've worked for or the client I've worked with, on almost any given day, I could always come to the office and know there were some serious rumbles of change happening in the upper echelons. And because I often worked closely with directors and the most senior managers in these businesses, preparing their communications and coaching them through their speeches, I was privy to knowing about the change before a lot of other people.

One thing I learned through witnessing organisational change at various levels -- massive restructures, company-wide software changes, or just a refocus of positioning -- was that change at a business level, almost always also means change at a cultural level. And when change occurs at a cultural level in response to big news in the business, redirecting it and rebuilding it was always a challenge.

A business will focus on adjusting organisational culture for a variety of reasons: perhaps it's refocusing its positioning, or it has a new leader with a different outlook, maybe it's not attracting the people it wants to, or in contrast, it's losing the people it wants to keep, possibly it's just not supporting the right kind of dynamic to build market share. It doesn't matter what the reason is, the initial action is usually the same; a senior leader decides what the new culture will be and then declares it to the masses, expecting their announcement will result in the desired outcome. It never does.

So, how can you implement effective change to your organisational culture?

Understand the importance of ownership

In the situation I mentioned above -- and it's a very common one -- a senior leader, or a group of managers comes up with what they believe the organisational culture should be. Or, they hire a business consultant to tell them what it should be, based on what's happening in the industry and with their competitors.

Culture is a really organic thing. For those who don't quite understand it's meaning, organisational culture is the look and feel of a business (and when I say business, I mean the people behind it); it is the values, ethics, beliefs, motivations and inspirations that drive anything and everything within the organisation from how casual people feel about clock on and clock off times, to what they wear, how they conduct themselves in teamwork, how they communicate with people above and below them, and basically the mood of the whole organisation. For example, culturally, a big law firm might have a highly competitive and assertive (aggressive?) culture which means its people always look sharp, winning at work is always more important that relationships, trust isn't strong and teamwork is superficial.

In contrast, a NFP charity, may have a warmer and more vibrant culture, where people give and take so they may come in later ad leave later, they might dress more casually, be more personal with clients or in external meetings, know more about each others' lives and support one another more.

Looking at these two examples, it's easy to see why culture is so organic. It comes from the type of people who work for the business and what the business's goals are. It's also worthy of note, having a culture like the law firm does not necessarily make it more successful than the NFP, it's just more suitable for success in that environment.

When a senior leader tries to dictate their expectation of culture to the people of a business, the people have no ownership of it -- it's almost like asking them to change their personalities or why they come to work. And while you may think that's common sense and quite obvious, you would be surprised at how many times I have seen this happen... and fail miserably.

The University of Michigan's Robert E. Quinn and Kim S. Cameron identify four organisational culture types; clan (family-like and nurturing), adhocracy (dynamic, driven, innovative and not afraid of a risk), market (results-driven, competitive, achievement-based), and hierarchy (structured, stable, careful and controlled). Can you imagine if a senior leader decided, without consulting an already established workforce, that the culture needed to jump type? Or even just adjust within the type of culture it already has? It's like putting square pegs in round holes.

Rather than deciding and then telling a workforce how you want to change the culture, get them involved -- people from all levels. Consult, talk openly, share and gather insights and ideas, and then work together to implement an agreed change that builds productivity and motivates everyone to get up and come to work in the morning.

Choose strong leaders to communicate change

Some leaders are collaborative and consultative, others aren't. Having a senior manager who can't connect with his or her people try to lead and communicate a big change (even if gradual) in culture, is just asking for failure.

Just because your CEO is your highest ranked staff member, does not mean they need to be the face and leader of change, they can simply be the support act. A CEO who can acknowledge this and accept it, is a true leader and one who knows how to hire the right people and play to their strengths.

When selecting your leader for cultural change, find a senior leader who already embodies the culture you're aiming to build. For example, if your culture is quite nurturing, but has become very lax, and you are implementing change to establish more structure and accountability, select a leader renowned for their careful structure and ability to make and stick to reasonable rules. Likewise, don't choose a cold dictator to introduce a more nurturing culture. A message from someone who leads from the front is a lot easier to swallow!

Always be honest

So often, I have worked with senior managers who are happy to forgo honesty and transparency in order to avoid conflict and challenge. Unfortunately, they don't see that the way they handle conflict and challenge, the rough times, does more to improve their standing as a leader than decades of easy times.

Work on organisational culture change usually comes after business change, and the way that business change was enacted really influences the type of cultural change you can make and how effective it will be. During times of organisational change, your biggest asset is honesty. It's almost impossible to keep things quiet as long as you need to, but only make announcements when you actually have something to say, don't avoid questions or make up answers, and most certainly don't lie. If you don't have an answer, feel free to say you don't know, but you'll do your best to find out. People appreciate honesty and respect.

Walk the walk

Regardless of who you select to be the leader and driver of cultural change from the top, every senior manager needs to actively lead the way, they need to walk the walk, knowing they are always on display and an example to those below them. One of the worst things to happen during a cultural change project, is for the wider workforce to see senior leaders whose behaviour conflicts with the new culture being implemented. They'll immediately think it's a joke, and the project, as well as the leaders, will lose credibility.

A good example of this was a medium-sized legal business I worked with as a consultant. They'd had some issues with clients, because although they were doing their jobs, their bedside manner had become less and less human over time and some of their staff were just cold and difficult to deal with. They knew a move to a clan culture was impossible with the people they had and the environment within which they worked, but they needed to dial down the internal competition and coldness a little, in order to enable staff to naturally be a little warmer when dealing with external clients.

Everything was going very well, the plan was in place and everyone seemed to be on board. And then a senior manager made a show of chastising one employee's handling of business compared to another, in a very public way, highlighting the assertive and aggressive nature of the 'better employee' and how that had led to a more optimal outcome. Now, of course, it's obvious what happened next. Staff continued to do as they were told, they acted warmer when they could on a superficial level, but there was no genuineness to it, which clients were easily aware of, because they were afraid and didn't believe the new culture was actually accepted at a senior management level.

Walk the walk, it's vital. If you're transitioning to a more customer-friendly culture, as a leader, reward good customer service, treat customers well in a very genuine way, and create more natural and friendly relationships with other staff.

Be realistic

One of the obvious lessons from the examples above is that some changes are just not supported by the type of organisation you have built. If you have built a hard-hitting and aggressive law firm, internal competition is a bi-product of that. If you have employed aggressive, competitive, stop-at-nothing people, a shift to a slightly more nurturing culture may not be possible. In that instance, you might try gradually changing your workforce over time, to people who are equally as assertive and intelligent, but also have high EQ and the ability to empathise easily with others. Sometimes, it comes down to recruitment.

A good example of this is some disability services organisations I have worked with, that are preparing to enter a new and much more competitive market. They have a lax, warm and comfortable culture of predominantly older women who have worked their way up from frontline positions. Now they need to implement a culture where people recognise the importance of competition, drive, pace, urgency and a little bit more assertiveness/aggressiveness. To accommodate this, they are working on a minor shift in existing staff culture, and recruiting new people from the private sector who are from more competitive, structured and fast-paced cultures. Over time, they'll marry the two together to achieve a great compromise.

Need help? I run a series of customised workshops designed for businesses of different sizes. One of our workshops focuses squarely on organisational culture - defining it, driving it and delivering change communication. It is collaborative and consultative and encourages ownership at all levels.

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