What is organisational culture?
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibres, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” – Herman Melville, poet, writer and author of the book Moby Dick.
Company culture can be defined as a system of values, beliefs, and behaviours that shape how work gets done. It is informed by leaders’ actions and decisions, is sustained by employee behaviours, and reinforced by business and organisational systems and is often described by the core values.
It is the total experience of working for an organisation.
Why is culture important anyway?
Changing organizational culture is one of the most powerful levers to pull to lift organisational performance. It impacts organisational financial and non-financial performance.
It plays a critical role in organisational resilience and agility, attracts world-class talent, drives innovation, improves customer relationships and links with external partners, and enhances employee engagement.
Related: Measuring Employee Engagement vs Culture.
Culture guides the way people approach their work and interact with each other. It comes into play when people are solving problems and making decisions; it influences how people behave to ‘fit in’ and be successful.
It signals what behaviours get rewarded and what behaviours get punished and plays a role in shaping what happens when priorities shift or when mistakes are made. In other words, culture defines the rules of the game.
Can culture be changed?
Edgar Schein, in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, says, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening. Ninety per cent of our behaviour in an organization is driven by cultural rules”.
It’s very hard (read impossible) to say that culture change will happen using 3, 17 or 42 easy steps. Every organization starts from a different place and wants different things out of its culture. Every journey will be different. However, there are several clear principles or guidelines which can be adapted to your unique organization.
So when is the best time to change organizational culture? Well, think about this. When is the best time to plant a tree? According to the ancient saying, it was 20 years ago. And when is the second-best time to plant a tree? Right now!
Something similar applies to a company’s organizational culture. It’s long, long term. If a company is planning a forward-looking strategy, a transformation, or has change or disruption thrust upon them, they need to execute the changes with the existing culture that has been embedded and entrenched, good or bad, over the last 20 years.
If it is something they have been consciously working on over time, these changes may be more natural to them. If the culture has been left to its own devices, well the effectiveness of the switch to a new way is left to fate.
PwC’s 2021 Global Culture Survey found that organisations who were able to adapt quickly to change in 2020, agreed that:
- Culture is a competitive advantage for their organisation (81%)
- Culture is an important leadership agenda topic (85%)
- Culture enables change to be successful (88%)
- Behaviours are aligned with how they define their culture (85%)
Make no mistake, company culture is difficult to change. Difficult, but not impossible. One temptation is to only process or project-manage change activities. And to an extent, this is relevant as systems and structures do influence culture. However, it is also the easy bit.
Shifting employee and team beliefs, mindsets, habits and behaviours is another matter entirely. Just think about how hard it is to build new muscle memory, like folding your arms the other way, playing the C-chord on guitar having never picked it up, or going from couch potato to fitness addict!
The same struggles exist in cultural “habits” and the inertia pull to go back to the old way is very very strong.
The one truth, however, is that we can be intentional around culture change, and it can change, as long as we are realistic, and don’t expect to manage and measure it the same way in which we might install a new piece of equipment!
In the spirit of 3 easy steps to changing your company’s culture, here are a few human-centred thought starters, showing the process bits very briefly, and the culture bits in more detail.
Step 1: As we start the change
- Develop the vision, purpose, and company values (longer term) and set a strategy (shorter/medium term) for your business.
- Understand your current culture, decide on, and articulate your desired corporate culture in the context of the long and short-term goals.
Culture change thoughts
Invite the whole organisation to be part of the cultural change process
The key to effective organizational culture change is the synthesis between science and the people who are involved. Co-creating fulfils employee needs of being heard and provides collective insight to organisations. This will help you remove blind spots and leverage the knowledge of the whole organisation.
Visualize your common dream about the future together
How we set our vision, values and strategy is a great opportunity to “be” the new organizational culture. This tip will help employees understand change as they are committed to it as they go along. Although changes may seem uncomfortable, they are most likely unknown.
Instead of relying upon abstract ideas, make clear in behavioural terms what will happen. A visual cue of the future can help determine what dream you’re going to dream. Make it human-friendly, fun, and interesting.
To change organizational culture, transform this into an individual challenge and not into something boring, imposed or dangerous. Make it clear how people act when changing a culture. Help them understand how to behave in line with the core values.
Define culture together
Considering Point 1, collaborative planning and conversations with the organisation to establish a shared vision that reflects your values and goals – essential for employee’s in their culture journey. Aligned with this, outline the desired new behaviours, attitudes, and norms that will contribute to changing company culture.
Be intentional about your organizational culture
An old friend of mine used to say, “If you don’t have a plan, nothing can go wrong!” The company’s culture will create itself and you won’t know it until 10 years later, when you want to do something different, and the organizational culture is “set”.
Understand and define the role of leadership in organizational culture change
Traditional culture change occurs with executive buy in, who then provide a clear vision for change. When does changing organizational culture fail? When a managing director or executives dictate the change. These approaches will underpin employees opposition against organizational change. The employees see the value of changing organizational culture as less desirable when forced to adopt the idea. This leads to implementation being unreliable.
Studies show that high-level, leader-led culture change management, without employee buy, in is a key cause of a company’s success in culture change failing dismally. However, a dedicated team of leaders can play a key role in organizational change of a company’s culture. It is essential to ensure that the desired culture aligns with the organisation’s overall strategy and supports its long-term objectives.
See the following link for more information on our change management consulting service.
It is the role of leaders to develop the strategy and to ensure that the organisation understands and accepts it, through strong communications practices, and can see a clear line of sight between their role and the strategy.
Step 2 – During the culture change
Design and commit to a change management plan that creates sustainable change:
- Describes the organisational structure and process changes that will affect the culture.
- Creates the communication and collaboration opportunities required for change.
Culture change thoughts
Foster employee engagement and communication
Engaging employees in the cultural transformation process is critical for its success. Establish open channels of communication to ensure employees are well-informed about the need for cultural change, the main challenges and the intended outcomes.
Encourage two-way communication to gather employee feedback, suggestions, and concerns. This fosters a sense of ownership, involvement and shared perception making employees feel valued and empowered.
Regularly share progress updates, new challenges and success stories to celebrate milestones and maintain momentum.
Make it clear how people can be involved throughout the change journey
Implementing organizational change can be personally difficult and discourages participants in many ways. Ensure employees are constantly informed and have a clear idea what is required of them. HR professionals focussed on the change management of the company culture can play a role in supporting employees. Additionally, be transparent in terms of the processes, new systems, communications, and decision-making processes so employees understand new company policies as they apply to the new corporate culture.
Create a safe and trusting environment for people to share their thoughts and opinions
The key to an organizations struggle in a large scale undertaking such as significant change to company culture is creating and maintaining trust and facilitating collaboration. Encourage dialogue rather than forcing employees into different communication formats and listen to different perspectives.
Ensure everyone is heard and feels heard, creating a good employee experience. A human-centeredness approach suggest we should not prioritise the voices of senior executives over those of frontline workers.
Help people find their own personal ‘whys’ for the change
Before you get deeper into how to facilitate organisational changes you must be historically focused in understanding why they occur. Give employees an understanding of why changes should and are being made, particularly new employees.
Try looking into how the changes will affect an employees life and not just change their life. Help employees find what’s important to them. When employees see personal value in the changes, their commitment grows. Help them to understand what behaviours they need to display in line with the core values.
Step 3 – Maintaining the change
Implement and review the plan on an ongoing basis.
Implement, monitor, review, evaluate and adjust
Monitoring and evaluating the progress of change is crucial to identify any gaps or areas needing adjustment.
Establish the key metrics and feedback mechanisms to track the impact of the change effort.
Regularly gather feedback from employees through employee surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one discussions.
It may also be appropriate to gather feedback from customers to understand customers experience.
Analyse the data collected to identify patterns and trends, and make necessary adjustments to the change strategy as required. Celebrate successes and acknowledge challenges, providing ongoing support to ensure sustained progress.
Culture change thoughts
Changing habits is hard, but not impossible
Why is maintaining the change so hard? The temptation for us to slip back to our old, comfortable ways is very tempting. Our brain is a little to blame for this, in the way that we create habits and like to maintain the status quo. And changing is very hard. For example, you just try to learn to write with the other hand!
As another example, if you try to learn the guitar, run a marathon, and complete a degree all at the same time, you will make progress in all, but may not be fully successful in any, all with a bit of stress and burnout attached! The relief when you give up and slip back into your old ways is palpable! All is possible, but it is a planned journey.
Provide training and development opportunities
To embed the desired culture, it is essential to provide employees with the necessary skills and knowledge. Develop training programs that align with the new culture, focusing on areas such as communication, collaboration, and adaptability.
Offer coaching and mentoring initiatives to support employees’ growth and development in line with the cultural change. Reinforce the desired behaviours through performance management systems – recognise and reward employees who exhibit them consistently.
Don’t “set” the culture
Making fluidity and adaptability part of cultural change is a continuous process that requires commitment, communication, flexibility and follow up.
By engaging employees, aligning leadership behaviours, fostering open communication, providing training, and regularly evaluating progress, you can steer your organization towards a new company culture that supports its long-term success.
Looking to change company culture and need expert guidance?
Keogh Culture by Design through the Cultivate toolbox
Keogh Consulting specialises in culture, leadership and business transformation consulting, partnering with organisations to effectively manage the human side of change. We have been working with organisations for over three decades to build high-performing cultures – workplaces where people flourish and benefits flow to the bottom line.
We drew on our experience, conducted an extensive literature review, sought assistance from subject matter experts and engaged in discussions with clients, which led to the development of a high-performing culture model.
The model led to the development of an extensive suite of tools that leaders can use to shape the culture they want to achieve business success.
We call this toolbox, Cultivate, and it is designed for, and available to, organisations who aspire to build a high-performing culture, where people flourish.
Related: How to Build a High-Performance Culture.
What are the benefits of Cultivate?
Designed for today’s workforce
Informed by subject matter experts and over two years of deep research, our culture model, Cultivate, gives you a clear picture of what today’s changing workplace culture needs.
Gives a true measure of culture
Our approach goes to the heart of how culture is built. Cultivate shines a light on the behaviours that need to be consistently demonstrated to deliver high and sustainable organisational performance; and create an environment where people can flourish.
A toolbox, not just a diagnosis
Cultivate offers you the model, approach and tools to build a positive workplace culture. This includes the Cultivate Survey to measure your organization’s culture.
Align your culture to your business strategy
By first understanding your strategy and then measuring your current state culture, our approach will help you to focus on the vital few behaviours that are key to successful strategy execution.
Attract and retain the best
Where good culture emerges, talent will follow. Our Cultivate model and toolbox guide you to build an environment where people don’t just love coming to work, they actively seek you out as an employer of choice.
Watch your bottom line thrive
We map and measure your organisation against three key dimensions and thirteen individual elements that underpin business performance, as a starting point from which to build your desired future culture.
Get a holistic approach to building culture
When you embark upon the Cultivate culture change journey, you will experience a comprehensive and rigorous approach that will set you on the right path to take you from where your culture is now to where it needs to be.
Boost your change readiness
Cultivate maps out your organisation’s change-readiness to help you prepare for the culture change and maximise your chances of success.
Tailored support for leaders
Our toolbox also includes Cultivate 360, a feedback diagnostic that provides leaders with valuable insights into the impact of their behaviour on the current culture.
Click the following link to learn more about Cultivate by Keogh.
Leading culture change is absolutely possible, and is absolutely essential. Be realistic. Invite the whole organisation along. Pay attention to the compass over the map.
Lead, manage, and lead some more!
Ready to start changing your company’s culture?
Reach out to one of our organisational change consultants to book your free 30-minute consultation today.