How to change your corporate culture

What is company culture?

Scores of experts have attempted to succinctly define this nebulous subject.

Here’s my addition to the pile: ‘Company culture is the sum of the leadership and employee behaviors, cultural values, and expectations that determine what is considered good or bad in a given organization.’

It’s a mouthful, I know, but just by trying to describe it highlights how ineffable and pervasive culture is. After all, company culture is evident in every choice a leader or his/her employees make. It’s present in every meeting; down to the topics discussed, the candor demonstrated, its duration, and even the promptness of these gatherings. Culture undergirds every performance review. And so on and so on…

Two dimensions of culture

Corporate culture’s very ubiquity might be enough to explain why it’s so difficult to change. But we can parse the dimensions of culture even more finely using two dimensions; a collaborative-competitive dimension and a creative-logical dimension.

As we know from the thousands of people who’ve taken the test, What’s Your Organizational Culture?, cultures can be collaborative and creative, competitive and logical, collaborative and logical, or competitive and creative. Put more simply, cultures can be Social, Hierarchical, Dependable, or Enterprising.

Changing your culture

So if you want to change your culture, you need to first understand what type of culture you presently have.

For example, do your employees tend to work collaboratively, sharing information, credit, and decision-making? Or is your company more competitive, where people jockey for promotions, ratings, rewards, and choice assignments?

Once you know how you stand on the collaborative-competitive dimension, you’ll need to determine whether your culture is more creative or logical. Does your company prize creativity, innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, and disrupting the status quo? Or does the organization value logic and predictability, with clearly-delineated processes, power structures, and rules?

Your answers to those questions (or your results of the culture test mentioned earlier), will determine how quickly, and crucially by how much, you can change your culture.

Do what’s easiest

It’s probably apparent that changing one cultural dimension is easier than changing both, especially simultaneously. If your company is hostage to overly-deliberative processes, it’s not a stretch to loosen the reigns a bit and experiment with faster and less contemplative decisions.

Conversely, if the organization is a little too free-wheeling and creative and could stand more rules and regimentation, it’s possible to effect that change.

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However, as you might imagine, loosening processes tends to generate greater employee enthusiasm than tightening them. For example, we know from Leadership IQ’s leadership styles test that highly-directive and structured leaders are generally less preferred than those who provide greater autonomy and freedom.

Similarly, an organization can become more collaborative or competitive. Instead of an organization driven by collaboration and consensus, it’s possible to start designating single points of authority with full decision-making responsibility.

It’s also possible to make promotions more competitive, top scores on performance reviews scarcer, and project reviews more critical. Conversely, companies can require a bit more teamwork, opinion-gathering, and joint accountability. Unlike the creative-logical dimension, however, there isn’t a strong tendency for employees to strongly prefer one direction or another. There are those who love collaboration, just as there are those who thrive on competition.

Try a bit-by-bit approach

The point here is ultimately simple: Successfully changing a culture requires choosing one dimension and, bit by bit, operating a little differently.

Whether your goal is becoming more creative or logical, or more collaborative or competitive, you’ll have a decent chance of effecting change by altering behaviors one dimension at a time.

Try to change both simultaneously, however, and it’s likely that you’ll generate far more resistance than buy-in.

 

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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