There are several approaches to changing cultural norms in an organization, however, the actual transformation comes from its people doing something unique, adopting new behaviors, changing the way they solve problems, and the way they communicate and interact with each other.
To change something, we must understand the way it’s created, formed and influenced. Here are three powerful drivers of culture: behaviors, techniques, and symbols.
Most organizations have values and a mission posted on their website. They are presented to the organization in a beautiful way. However, those become obsolete if the leaders and key influencers do not role model those values. People in the organization will copy the behaviors of their leaders in order to be like them and create a sense of belonging, with the belief that the display of those behaviors will help them fit in and be successful. We learn this by looking around, mainly toward our leaders. What behaviors helped elevate them to the top? All become symbols, which we will discuss later. By themselves, behaviors are one of the most powerful tools leaders have to design and change the culture. If leaders and the key influencers can change their own behaviors by living more aligned with the values declared, people would understand, accept, and adopt it faster.
If you notice as a leader that people are not displaying the behavior you would like to see in the organization, you need to first look at yourself and ask: “What am I (and my colleagues) doing that might cause others to believe it is the right behavior?” The interesting thing is, we are all leaders or an example to someone else in the organization. So, in the end, we can all do something about it. The question is: How can you respond to the challenge?
Understanding how behaviors influence the culture is a great way to create change. How can you role model the behavior you would like to see in the organization?
These are related to all the processes you have in place in your organization. Some might be based on historical decisions and others might be more recent or born out of necessity. How is success in the organization measured, and how is it reported? What HR processes are in place, how is compensation defined, and what is the bonus scheme based on? How is a budget allocated? These are all examples of systems at play. Systems are deeply ingrained in an organization and can be difficult to change. The question to change culture toward the behaviors you need should never be about the systems you currently have, but rather about the systems you will need two to three years from now. You need to stand in the future. Once you are there, look back to define the plan to get there.
Where do you see an opportunity for a systemic change in your organization to create the culture you need? If you had a magic wand:
- How would people be rewarded?
- What would the process be for allocating budgets?
- How would decisions be made?
- Is there any other system that is critical to your organization?
This is the most visible and recognizable. When you walk into an office building, you can get a first sense of the culture by observing people at work, how things are organized, who is where, what you see on the walls, parking lot allocations, office spaces and how people talk to each other.
Other meaningful symbols include the way a budget is allocated, how time is invested, who is promoted and who is not, and how accomplishments are celebrated. Are they individuals or teams? What values and what results are taken into account? Does any of this sound familiar?
One of the more relevant symbols is the story or stories being shared. Like any other community (from our tribal ancestors to our current days), we often share stories about how things were created and who succeeded (even creating myths). We share stories that are funny and stories about failure. We share learnings, and many times we talk about cases and people. We create symbols, ideas, myths and a future based on history. One of the most powerful assets for cultural change might be which stories are being shared in the organization. When linked with behavioral change and new systems, everything comes together, making sense to people in a faster, more effective way.
What are some of the symbols in your organization? How can this be changed for the culture you need?
What are the main stories being told? How is this conducive to the culture you want? Which stories can start being told?
Making the connection
In working with a large tech company, we discovered how the behaviors, systems, and symbols could be quite a force at play in an organization. One of the main goals for the year was to align the company with a new set of values and create a “one company.” We looked at all the different behaviors that would be needed or changed to align with what “one company” would look like. Increased collaboration, openness, listening and sharing are all characteristics of new behaviors. However, employees found it difficult to change, and we were curious what might be getting in the way.
The organization was heavily matrixed. Employees had multiple reporting relationships. One manager would be really good at role modeling the new behaviors, while another would revert back to his/her “old, more hierarchical” ways. A second layer was that the compensation and bonus plan was entirely based on individual performance, which created a conflict of interest. On the one hand, there was an ask for collaboration and sharing, but this would possibly put someone’s bonus at risk because sharing or collaboration might not yield the same results. Why take such a risk?
Lastly, there were some heavy restrictions on the type of computers and phones that an employee could use; yet at the same time, a lot of the leaders would have the “forbidden” equipment, which made it all very confusing.
From this example, it’s easy to see how behaviors, systems, and symbols could have a significant impact on the culture of an organization — and how we need to link the three and work on all of them to create an effective culture change.
Once leaders see what we explained until now, they say, “We need a culture project!” This is something you might say in your mind. And yes, there are a lot of things you can do to influence the culture, but culture change in the workplace is not just a project. That is another strong belief or myth.
Culture is continuous
Just as the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans went before us, so did the culture of your organization. The culture was already there when you arrived, and it will continue long after you leave.
Culture is a never-ending process of defining and redefining who you are as an organization — and finding new ways to bring this alive in new contexts, with new people, addressing different challenges. You are always designing the culture, and you can do a significant amount of change in a short period of time. You might call it a project if you want to “shock” the systems to address big challenges and to get specific budget and focus. However, culture — as a concept and as a whole — will continue to evolve. It will need to be taken care of beyond your timeframe, and there will not be a day where you say, “We did it!”
Having this mindset will change the way you think about culture change.
Some questions to consider:
- How am I perceiving and facing the needs that culture change in the workplace brings?
- How are the leaders and the people in my organization talking about culture in general? Do they understand what it means and what it takes?
- And what about myself…what is my understanding when reading these words?
- What would be the leadership behaviors, systems, and symbols that are enablers for what you want and need? Which ones might be blockers?
- What stories are being told in the organization that might be blocking your ability to change faster?
This article first appeared on CultureUniversity.