A Quick Guide to Cultural Transformation

Carol Anderson

Founder, Anderson Performance Partners

When employees are asked to describe why they love their job, many cite a positive company culture.

And that makes sense: Whether it be a general feeling of acceptance and comradery or a series of toxic interactions, culture can make or break the employee experience. According to a Deloitte report, there’s a strong correlation between employees who say they are "happy at work" and feel "valued by [their] company," and those who say their organization has a clearly articulated culture.

What’s more, a positive company culture can make an organization more profitable. In that same report, 94% of executives and 88% of employees said they believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success.

So how do you create a positive company culture or improve the one you have? Cultural change isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can feel downright impossible. After all, 70% of culture change initiatives fail. But with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be quite so hard.

What Culture Really Means

Before you can change your culture, you need to understand what it is—and what it isn’t. According to Cornerstone’s AVP of learning and organizational effectiveness, Jeff Miller, many people define company culture as perks or "fun" elements of a job (think an unlimited vacation policy or catered lunch once a week). And while these perks are nice to have, it’s the ability to communicate—and stick to—your organization’s goals and beliefs that makes people want to work for you. Culture manifests itself in a series of written rules and unwritten expectations that dictate how employees should treat one another and, in turn, do their job effectively. Even small changes, like giving employees the opportunity to work remotely or design their hours around a specific childcare schedule, can help build a strong company culture.

Accountability Is Key

In my 40 years of working with evolving organizations, as an employee, as a leader and later, as a change consultant, I have seen good and bad examples of organizational change. I have learned that successful cultural transformation depends wholly on the organizational leaders: how they embrace it, communicate it and live it.

One common practice among organizations is to introduce a series of core values to help employees understand how they are expected to behave on the job. The problem however, is that these values often work in theory but not in practice. I once worked at an organization that espoused "accountability" as a core value. It was written on the walls, repeated in meetings and printed on t-shirts. Yet a department head performed poorly over a long period of time, and nobody held him accountable. In the end, trust across the organization dissolved because leadership was unwilling to communicate their concerns to him or provide feedback.

A company can create as many cultural doctrines and mission statements as it wants, but unless those ideas are carried out in practice, they are unlikely to make an impact.

Embrace Behavioral Change

The most effective way to help your culture evolve is to lead by example. If managers’ behavior does not line up with the behavior they expect from others, employees will likely be confused about how they should act. Instead, communicate to employees what is expected of them and provide continuous feedback until the new behavior becomes habitual.

For instance, if you want to build a culture of accountability, begin by holding an information session on the topic with your managerial staff. Use this time to define accountability and explain why it’s important. Ensure managers understand how they can lead by example and show employees how to hold each other accountable in a fair and productive way.

Organizational Change Is Possible, but It Isn’t Always Easy

Since culture starts from the top, changing your company’s culture will require a shift in attitudes and behavior—which can be a daunting task. Not only must you teach your employees to embrace new types of behavior, you also need to unteach behaviors that are detrimental to your company’s culture. After all, these behaviors are habits, and habits take concentration and hard work to break. New behaviors must be reinforced and demonstrated consistently.

Cultural transformation requires a candid assessment of what needs to change and leadership who have the courage to demonstrate the behavior and hold their teams accountable. Consider carefully what it will take not just to make the change, but to maintain it.

Photo: Creative Commons

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