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Changing Organizational Culture

Every organization has one. Part of it is intentional, and part of it is accidental. It has developed and endured for years, so it would take years to change. It’s your organizational culture.

For more on what it is, where it comes from, and how to assess it, see the “prequel” article to this one, Understanding Organizational Culture. And we must start with understanding the current culture as well as how we got here, because we must know this before we can decide whether we SHOULD try to change it, what it WILL TAKE to do so, and, importantly, whether we are willing to pay that price.

We’ve all heard that change is hard, and we’ve all experienced that change can be very hard. Well, in the realm of changing an organizational culture, change will usually be extremely hard. But it can be doable. Here’s how.

As I’ve researched this issue of changing culture, I’ve come to a very interesting perspective that I haven’t seen expressed anywhere else: There is an EXTERNAL aspect to organizational cultural change and also an INTERNAL aspect to the change. Stories such as the Southwest Airlines hiring story that I shared in my first article seem to be saying that the organization needs certain kinds of people who exemplify the culture, implying that we’re looking for something about WHO a person IS.

However, there’s also an undeniable aspect to changing culture that has to do with outward behaviors. In fact, the "Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness" (GLOBE) Research Program, conceived in 1991 by Robert J. House of the Wharton School of Business, came up with the conclusion that you can change the culture if you can “change people's ideas about what the ‘norm’ is, i.e. what others are doing or how they are behaving. It's not necessary to actually change people internally or change their internal values.” Which perspective is right?

Actually I think they both are. Can people exhibit a behavior regularly that doesn’t align with their internal value? The answer is that it depends on the behavior and how distant it is from the value. Would you want your key leaders to have this misalignment? Probably not, because they must be the key MODELERS of the behavior. Can we act our way into adopting a new internal value? Certainly, that can happen in many cases. Can some behaviors be “faked” better than others? Of course, and this is a real key to this whole issue. Some cultures are stronger than others and are more “core” to one organization than to others. The stronger the Core Value, the more important it will be that our people ARE that kind of person.

Are there some values where this will be more important than others? Well, compare two of the Core Values of a company called Herschend Family Entertainment, which operates several theme parks around the country. Their value that “We constantly improve” would seem to be much more of an outward behavior and discipline than their value that “we create emotional connections.” However, if the former value means that each employee is constantly improving, that likely becomes an internal value as well as an external behavior.

Keeping this distinction in mind, here is a brief list of key approaches to changing organizational culture. These are what I consider the most critical based my own experiences and after reviewing recommendations from numerous articles and books on the topics of change and culture.

  • Define the current culture and identify the barriers to moving to the new one, including, very importantly, the personal emotional barriers. Decide whether the cost will be worth the effort and whether you and the organization have the courage to stay the course. It WILL take courage. Include both top leadership and some “key influencers” from throughout the organization in this evaluation. But weigh these costs against the impact of a changed culture. What’s at stake and what are you willing to do to get there?

  • Define the new cultural attribute as an Aspirational Core Value, explaining exactly what it means and what the new behavior will look like

  • Consider 2 sets of values, called “Who we are values” and “What we do values.” Sometimes this will be very helpful in your processing and clarifying, and will help you clear up the issue of Internal Values vs. External Values.

  • Do whatever it takes to align top leadership with the new value – train, equip, coach, correct, and remove & replace if necessary. Make it clear to leaders that they must be great role models of the value and that a Real Core Value is never violated. Do ongoing training and coaching of the leaders.

  • Communicate the change to employees and other stakeholders and express the commitment to stay the course over the long haul to get there. Invite their input on how change can happen and listen well.

  • Enlist “key influencers” in the organization to begin to behave in accordance with the value. As others see this, they will begin to see the behavior as the “new norm”

  • Provide practical ongoing training and equipping of employees in the new value

  • Watch for “wins” and tell these stories. This will accomplish 3 things -- demonstrate the need for the value, reinforce the importance of the value, and communicate that the value is becoming the “new norm.”

  • Realign the organization and systems within the organization to smooth the path for the valued behavior

  • Make alignment with the value a requirement for all new hires, communicate the value in interviews and orientation, and equip new employees as a part of their training

  • Give existing employees and volunteers time to adjust but make it clear that you expect continuous growth toward alignment

  • Dismiss employees and volunteer leaders who just can’t get there. This may sound harsh, but, in the end, it is valuing them by protecting them from an ongoing misfit with their “new” job that now requires alignment with this value. And you will be sending a critical message to other employees.

  • Regularly evaluate the organization’s progress and be open to modifying any of the above initiatives to increase their effectiveness

  • Continue to celebrate “wins,” both small and large

As I said, count the cost before you begin, but imagine what’s at stake for the organization and the people it is serving! Your culture impacts so much that this great change effort could be leveraged for significant impact both internally and externally.


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