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So, You Want to Change Your Culture…

Organizational culture: obsessed over, misunderstood, oversimplified, and scapegoated.

“We need to change our culture”, “That place has such a toxic culture”, “Our culture wouldn’t allow for that” “The real problem is our culture”…

Sound familiar? Whether you’ve heard it at your own organization, or come across a similar premise in one of the many fervent cultural calls-to-action online, it’s clear to me that these days culture is on the operating table. Underlying all these arguments is a sense of urgency, and a belief that culture can and should be engineered, shaped, and managed:

Mold it, control it, strengthen it, change it, or it will change you! Your efforts will mean the difference between culture as organization-limiting obstacle, and culture as critical competitive advantage!

But the sloppy and imprecise way we talk about ‘culture’ also effects our thinking and speech about changing culture, so that we find ourselves awash in popular discourse that basically equates organizational culture change with switching the wallpaper in your house: a real pain in the ass, but nothing that you and a few friends couldn’t get done over a long weekend.

This is the 3rd post in a series on Organizational Culture. You can read posts 1 & 2 here:
Part 1: HR’s Sloppy Thinking on Culture
Part 2: DIY Organizational Ethnography

Sloppy Thinking on Culture Change

If you’ve read my previous posts on this topic, you already know that I believe we’ve managed to thoroughly confuse ourselves about what culture is. The word ‘culture’ gets used to describe all sorts of things – employee engagement, an organization’s supposed values, employee morale, a vague and invisible ‘vibe’ one gets from a place…but while some of these are features or manifestations of culture, they don’t describe the underlying, largely invisible, persistent, deep aspects of culture, where genuine culture change would need to occur.

This oversimplification of what we mean by ‘culture’ has lead, by extension, to the term ‘culture change’ being used to describe organizational efforts that are often vapidly cosmetic.  Many organizations, and the well-meaning people inside of them, are buying the impassioned but imprecise hype about culture change. They end up investing significant time, effort and funds into so-called culture change initiatives that are doomed to failure from the start, fundamentally unequipped to impact anything but the superficial layers of organizational life and unable to achieve the far-reaching changes they claim as their goal. Poorly executed, these efforts are potentially harmful to the credibility and trust between employees, management and HR.

Damn the Clear Definitions- Full Speed Ahead!

Okay, let’s assume that your organization thinks that changing its culture sounds like a pretty groovy idea, and that you’ve made some credible efforts to get a handle on what your culture really is (beyond just taking your senior executives’ opinions at face value). Dammit, you’re going to do this right! A couple of questions to ask yourself first:

1. Why do you think you need to change your organization’s culture? That is, what problem has ‘culture change’ been proposed to solve? And are you reasonably sure that culture change is in fact going to solve this problem, whatever it is? Or is ‘culture change’ being used as camouflage for “We really need to do something but we’re not really sure what…” Do you vaguely hope that undertaking such an intervention will lead to a ‘better’ culture? ‘Better’ by what measure?

Cultures in and of themselves aren’t bad, or good. They each develop as a kind of framework that members share to provide meaning and predictability to their environment and interactions. The elements of a culture can be useful (adaptive), or not, depending on the environment they exist in. Part of the problem with a lot of the ardent manifestos about ‘culture as competitive advantage’ is that they’re preaching idealized cultures that don’t suit the reality of many organizations. Zappos’ (in)famous culture simply wouldn’t support success in the vast majority of organizations, and these organizations would be foolish to try to emulate it.

An example: Let’s say that Organization ABC’s culture is grounded in part on the underlying assumption that employees cannot be trusted to do their jobs correctly without constant checks, audits and monitoring. This leads to an organization in which managers and employees constantly police each other, and errors and oversights are met with harsh penalties. Sounds utterly terrible, doesn’t it? But what if this organization was a nuclear power plant, or the Center for Disease Control, or a high security prison? In these cases a culture like this might very well be adaptive, leading to success: no accidents, zombie plagues or prisoner escapes. In another organization where innovation is the organization’s primary business strategy, such a culture would likely get in the way of success…

So, examine why exactly you believe your culture needs to change. What elements of your culture are preventing your organization from achieving its goals? And are you sure that it’s your culture and not another issue?

2. Have you considered the bigger picture? Culture change requires meddling with powerful systems that we cannot fully understand or predict. Changing one element can have unintended consequences in other parts of the system.

An example: I was reminded of this while reading ‘The Org’ (which I recommend highly) during my vacation this week – it referenced the story of John Browne’s conscious transformation of BP into a privately held, dollar-spewing powerhouse beginning more than a decade after the British government sold its shares in the corporation. He accomplished this by thinning BP’s ranks by over 50%, decentralizing, embedding risk-taking and knowledge sharing into BP’s philosophy, and using the levers of performance evaluation and compensation to reinforce this new cultural ‘programming’. The result? An inspiring balance sheet, and a body count. Safety took a back seat for entrepreneurial, risk-taking managers focused on reaching cost cutting and productivity targets to ensure their compensation, resulting in multiple accidents.

3. Have you weighed the cost of failure? Culture change (like many change efforts) typically fails, and the consequences can be ugly…Laying on ‘cultural change’ efforts too thick, or in an inauthentic way, can lead to cynicism and rejection within the organization. People aren’t stupid, and they don’t like feeling manipulated. Remember, culture operates at a deep level. If your approach is to slap some superficial programs or initiatives on top of that and expect deep change, be prepared for failure, as well as lots of much-deserved eye rolling and lasting cynicism about your motives.

When stakes are high, as they are in organizational culture change, we simply can’t afford to eagerly drink the ‘culture change’ snake oil, and wait for a magic transformation.

Coming soon: Part 4: Hallmarks of Effective Culture Change

Image credit: blucolt via Flickr Creative Commons

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Jane, your question “are you sure it’s the culture that needs changing and not something else” is a good one. And I agree that culture has become a buzz word for organizations, but at the same time changing the culture is incredibly difficult.

    Perhaps it is not so much culture, as it is values and behaviors, that are in apparent need of change. I finished up a Capstone project with a crushed stone company that embarked upon a “values mission”. They had a strong culture, as it had been a family owned business. Technology and competition caused them to look at their employees’ behaviors in light of the founders’ values.

    In doing this, they identified their core values and spent an amazing amount of time using the words, in everyday speech, in performance discussions – everywhere. Some of the stories we heard during our project work were truly awesome, as employees “found their answers” in the values, and used them as a guide to make decisions.

    This little company had solidified their culture through careful identification of values, and through a concerted effort to use the values to drive behavior.

    I think you have a really good point about being clear what really needs to change and why….

    February 18, 2013

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