Company Culture - Do you have a plan?

Businesses are complex entities. This may be due to its products or services and in its financials. Just as complex though is an element that isn’t as tangible – company culture.

Even describing company culture can be difficult. In essence, it’s the personality of a business and how its people communicate and work. Another important trait is that it doesn’t sit still – it’s an entity that renews and evolves when other shifts take place in leadership, strategy and external influences. To sum it up in one simple sentence, culture is the pattern of behaviour that determines how things are done.

A healthy, functioning culture has a huge influence on the financial and operational success of a business, but there’s no magic formula to cultural change. Often workshops are held, posters are produced and screen savers scream the values at your people whenever they sit down. On the whole, these tend to have little influence and people continue to act and behave as they always have.

Yet if you start to focus on behaviours, you can start to initiate real change. Here are some proven principles to get you started on this journey, because if you start to change behaviour, an evolution in mindset will follow.

Cultural change is an evolution, not a revolution.

You need to work with what you currently have. You can’t swap your culture out for a new one as though it were a new phone system.

To work with what you have, your firstly need to understand it, know what traits and beliefs take precedence and ask yourself when and where these traits are likely to help or hinder – as in some cases even undesirable behaviours may serve a purpose.

Ideally, after understanding your current culture, you can tap into a strong emotional trigger that’s already present and amplify this into your workforce.

Focus on behavioural shifts first.

It’s often thought that behavioural change follows mental shifts. Yet in reality, proof of change is more in what we do than in what we say. Trying to change culture purely through top-down messaging and training seldom changes behaviour.

Neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than the other way round, so look for changes to key behaviours that are tangible, actionable, repeatable, observable, and measurable.

These can be as simple as reducing the number of approvals needed for decisions, to new ways to collaborate across divisions and setting up a new process where it’s safe to speak up about issues.

Less is more.

It can be tempting to want to solve all issues at once and do a 360 cultural shift. The best approach is to focus on “the critical few,” a small number of important behaviours that will have a great impact if put into practice by a significant number of people.

Everyone in the organisation can play their part in deciding what these are. Once you’ve identified them, make it easy to put things into practice. For example, if meetings are becoming inefficient, set up meeting etiquette guidelines around who needs to be invited, ensuring people turn up on time and always circulating an agenda beforehand. It’s also good practice to have a small team of champions who are passionate and committed to leading this new behaviour.

Identify and utilise your natural leaders.

Formal positions of authority and seniority shouldn’t be confused with leadership. Within your organisation you will have a pool of natural leaders – they may not be people leaders or have an executive position, but people will follow their lead. They will be respected and can be influential forces. Getting these leaders on-board with cultural change can have a huge effect on its rollout.

It’s usually fairly obvious who these people are, but some do fly under the radar, so you can identify them through interviews and surveys and talking to your people. Once identified, these leaders can become powerful allies who can influence behaviour through “showing by doing.”

Formal leaders are also accountable.

It can be tempting to throw cultural change into the lap of the human resources team, but it’s the role of leaders across a business to take responsibility for the behaviour and feelings of their people. If leaders demonstrate emotional commitment and a desire to change and to act in a new way, then others will follow. On the other hand, if people see a disconnect between what is being communicated from the top and one that is actually practised, cultural change will be slow or non-existent. The people at the top have to demonstrate the change they want to see.

Behaviour and business objectives go hand in hand.

Culture is integral in an organisation, but let’s face it, so is the bottom line. It’s crucial that people know how changing behaviour translates into the work they do and the company performance. This is where showcasing examples is crucial – especially those that have taken place within your own business.

Recognising and rewarding staff for these behaviours and at the same time showing how they’ve made a difference will bring it to life and encourage others to do the same.

Showcase results quickly.

When tasked with cultural change, people want to see that the effort they’ve put into changing behaviour is getting results. It’s disheartening if they feel they are doing the hard yards, but don’t see the activity or impact.

That’s why it is extremely important to showcase the impact of cultural efforts on business results as quickly as possible. One way of doing this is to carry out pilots, where a small group of motivated people instigate change in a way that can be measured quickly. These can translate into fast results which when communicated to the rest of the team can help to make it all real – and achievable.

Use internal influencers to communicate success.

Use your network of informal leaders to communicate how things are going – this could be through internal channels like your intranet or internal Yammer, or even in LinkedIn posts and other social media.

People are often more receptive to changes in “the way we do things around here” when those changes are recommended or shared by friends, colleagues, and other associates.

Align behaviours with your ways of doing business.

A new cultural direction has to align with your existing ways of doing business. Change can’t be at odds with your formal organisational components. Ensure that you have processes and structures at all levels of the business, including human resources, ways of working, analytics and measurement standards.

Work on culture is never complete.

Culture isn’t a ‘set and forget’. People change, expectations change and businesses need to adapt to a time where the pace of change has never been so rapid. Culture can provide hidden sources of energy and motivation that can accelerate changes faster than formal methods. It pays to remember that even if you have a highly effective culture today; it may not be good enough for tomorrow. Cultural change needs to be a constant programme.

All of the above is great, but it can be difficult to know where to start. The best way is to answer a few important questions:

  • What are the emotional forces that matter most to your people?
  • What are three or four behavioural changes that would make a real difference in meeting strategic and operational imperatives?
  • Who are your informal leaders?
  • What part can you and your senior leaders play in showing that you are serious about – and committed to – change?

Expect an evolution, not a revolution. But the most important thing is to make a start – now.

Author: Peter Robinson
Team Leadership Services