What is Organizational Culture?
An organization’s culture is its collective mindset. The patterns of widely shared (often unconscious) assumptions, beliefs, and values that form the basis of people’s ways of being, relating, and working, as well as the organization’s interaction with and success in its environment.
In other words, an organization’s culture shapes everything that takes place in that environment. How people interact, how things are done daily, and how culture change, organizational change and transformation is managed is all a direct reflection of an organization's culture.
What Kind of Culture Do You Have in Your Organization?
Take a moment to reflect on the culture in your organization.
- Does your culture reflect employees who are taken care of, or are your leaders inclined to pile work on them til they’re overwhelmed?
- How do your employees and leaders interact in times of stress and change?
- Is it acceptable for employees to ask questions, to say no, or to make suggestions for change?
- What gets rewarded or punished?
- What is the quality of working relationships?
- What is the level of authenticity and truth-telling?
- What gets monitored and/or reported?
- How are emotions handled?
- How are mistakes and breakdowns handled?
- Is there openness to learning and feedback?
- How is power used and/or shared?
- What is the level of cross-boundary support and collaboration?
- How are blame and rumors handled?
How Does Culture Change Impact the Success of Transformation?
Your corporate culture has a huge impact on the success of your transformational change initiatives. Any time you have a major organizational change underway, the organization’s culture is at play. It will either support the new state reality you are implementing, or block it.
Most likely, many of your organization’s patterns will surface as helpful or inhibiting as your organization shifts from its old ways of doing things to the new. The new strategies, structures, systems, processes, and/or technologies are likely so different from your current state that they require people to adopt new ways of being and working. Employees will likely have to change the way they interact with one another, what they choose to prioritize and focus on, and how their results are measured.
Without clear shifts in cultural norms and expectations, your organization’s change initiatives are likely to fail. Your culture has been developed to be successful in your company as it has been, not as you’d like it to be. Without cultural transformation at the most basic level, employees will soon revert to their old ways of working. You must make changes to culture overt and specific so people know what they need to do differently. Leaders should design the new culture to deliver on the new transformational and organizational change initiatives, so that employees can see how the new corporate culture will fit into the larger change picture.
Cultural Transformation Starts with Leaders
Any major cultural transformation starts with an organization’s leaders. Leaders must model the new behaviors to provide a good example for employees, and to demonstrate that these changes are not temporary. If a leader does not demonstrate signs of change, it is unlikely that employees will take this initiative on their own. A leader must fully commit to and believe in the new culture. Employees will pick up on any hesitation or ambivalence about these plans. Showing that this change is a priority will inspire them to embrace the changes.
How Can Leaders Successfully Shift Organizational Culture?
Leadership and project attention to culture is essential from the beginning of the change process. It is never effective as a “bolt-on” strategy after implementation. Nor is it effective as a generalized communication: “We need to change our culture.” That does nothing to clarify exactly what must change for the new state to be successful and sustain its value over time.
Everyone required to make the change (leaders, managers, and employees) must be supported to act in pre-determined new ways for the change to take root and last. This shift is hard for many leaders to envision, as culture is not simple or tangible to define and change. However, this focus is always necessary for transformational change to succeed.
An examination of the new state solution’s impact on culture will be the best place to reveal what must be changed. Leaders will need to assess what the current culture already has in place that supports their desired changes, and what blocks their new directions. They will need to identify the specific cultural indicators that will need to be changed or initiated. Examples of cultural indicators include the sharing and use of information, how rewards and punishments are used, how managers monitor the performance of their teams, how mistakes are handled, and so on. Look at what might negate or inhibit the successful execution of your new state.
Take some time to discover the following:
- What about the new state solution requires a shift in our culture? How, exactly?
- What cultural indicators work, block, or are needed for this change effort to succeed?
- What new behaviors are required to enact these new norms and practices?
- How can I, as a leader, model these behaviors?
- How can I communicate and engage my stakeholders so they can see the value in changing their fundamental way of working?
- What are the best ways of reinforcing the new cultural norms and behaviors so they stick?
Once you have answered these questions, you can begin to implement successful culture change. Keep the culture story alive as you communicate your Case for Change and Change Strategy. Keep it alive in you!