Culture Change Is Bottom Up and Top Down

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Apr 1, 2019

It’s often said that company culture starts at the top – that in order to effect meaningful change in your organization, you need executive buy-in. While that’s certainly true, it’s only half the story. For a cultural shift to truly be successful, everyone needs to be on-board, from the CEO down to the greenest intern. Here’s how to ensure they are.

The prevailing narrative around corporate culture is that it starts at the top. You cannot effect meaningful change in a business without buy-in from its leadership. While that’s not necessarily false, it’s also not the whole truth, either.

Leadership alignment is actually only the first step in changing an organization’s culture. In order to truly bring about a cultural shift, you need organization-wide support. You need to get everyone on-board – to take a bottom-up approach to corporate culture.

Here’s how you can do just that.

Understand the importance of open communication

The most valuable advice I’ll give you is to talk to your employees. That might seem pretty basic at first glance, right? After all, if you’re trying to promote bottom-up corporate culture, communication seems like the natural first step.

Yet time and again, I see HR professionals and business leaders who seem to neglect this critical stage. Sure, they communicate on some level, through memos and internal releases. Maybe they even conduct regular employee surveys so they can get a feel for how their staff thinks.

But beyond those basic steps, they don’t actually take the time to listen. It’s like the difference between saying you have an open-door policy and actually reaching out to people so they feel like they’re being heard. Empty niceties versus actual engagement.

In a healthy organization, employees should feel like they’re able to freely share their ideas with leadership. If they’re unhappy with the way something is being done, they should not be afraid to speak up and make their dissent known. They should be willing and able to call both colleagues and managers out on their mistakes.

When it comes to the implementation of a new process or initiative, take the time to explain your reasoning to everyone affected by it. Why are you making the change? What goals do you hope to achieve with it? How will it impact them, and what can they do to gain the greatest benefit from it?

Pay attention to each department’s context and needs. And when someone expresses distaste for an initiative, don’t get offended or defensive. Listen to what they have to say, endeavor to understand their perspective, and acknowledge that they may have a point.

Empower your standout staff

Communication is only the first step in changing your company’s culture. And as challenging as establishing a dialogue between employees and departments may seem, that’s only the first step you need to take. To truly bring about change, you need champions – people in your corner who understand and support what you’re trying to do.

Pay attention to the people in each department who seem to have a great deal of influence over their peers. The exceptionally charismatic or especially skilled. The veterans and teachers. The people who embody your company’s values and display exceptional work and initiative.

These are the men and women who will truly drive change. They’re the ones who will lead by example and bring others on board. All you need is to empower them to do so – to give staff the independence to excel.

Establish a cultural narrative

Human beings are born storytellers. It’s something that’s defined us since the very dawn of civilization – something that defines us even to this day. If your goal is to truly catch the attention of your employees, a great way to start is with a compelling story.

What defines your organization? What core ideals and values was it established on? What has it achieved over the course of its existence, and what does it still aim to achieve? These are all elements that can be worked into an ongoing, evolving narrative; a living story embodied by your business, and one in which your staff plays an important role.

“[Every organization] has a history – a unique story,” writes HBR’s John Coleman. “The ability to unearth and craft it into a narrative is a core element of culture creation. The elements of that narrative can be formal or informal… but they are more powerful when identified, shaped, and retold as part of a firm’s ongoing culture.”

Corporate culture isn’t something you can force. Just because you have buy-in from leadership, doesn’t mean a successful cultural shift is guaranteed. If you’re truly going to change the core of your organization, you need to get everyone on-board.

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