Changing Corporate Culture Is Easier Than You Think

One key to good leadership is the ability to change corporate culture.  Unfortunately, too many people view culture as an unmovable force that is beyond anyone’s control.  I would argue that culture is not nearly as difficult to change as some think – the key is to treat the symptom, not the cause.

At its essence, corporate culture is nothing more than a critical mass of staff exerting a consistant pattern of behaviors.  Change the behaviors and you change the culture.

3D Bad Habits Crossword textHow is this done?  First, it is important to identify the behaviors that are creating the culture, and then create a strategy aimed directly at those behaviors.  

At its essence, culture is nothing more than a critical mass of staff exerting a consistant pattern of behaviors.  Change the behaviors and you change the culture.

 I once took over a department that needed a fundamental refocusing.  Two prevalent behaviors became the target of my efforts.  Behavior #1 was a “not my job” attitude where staff rarely took initiative outside of their immediate area. Behavior #2 was hiding failure, leading the department to repeatedly make the same mistakes.

To address these behaviors, I started a monthly CIO lunch where I offered two awards. One was the Surfboard Award – the idea being that surfers are constantly reading the wave, adjusting their course while keeping balance. This was awarded to a staffer who showed initiative by doing something outside of their duties.

The second “award” recognized failure.  In giving this “award” – I created a discussion about failure, how we learn from failure, and how not to repeat the same mistakes.  I knew I had succeeded when I came up short one month and asked people to self-nominate.  Staff were so free in providing examples of failure that they started one-upping each other.  In this discussion, many lessons were learned and applied.

While addressing specific behaviors is critical to culture change, I think it is important to also take a broad approach too.  One good place to start is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  While most psychologists of his day spent their time studying people with severe mental illnesses, Maslow did the opposite – he studied people who were extraordinarily well-adjusted and happy.  His hierarchy of needs showed that to be whole, to reach “self-actualization,” we need to graduate through several more primal steps.

MaslowI would suggest that good leaders strive to have their organizations reach self-actualization.  For this to happen, people need to move beyond the bottom tiers of the pyramid which I believe are most manifested in fear - fear of losing their jobs, fear of rejection, fear of failure.  When people are stuck at the bottom of the pyramid, the exhibit survivalist behaviors, and the concepts of teamwork, creative problem-solving, and the organizational good become light years away.

To get people to the top of the pyramid, to have them attain self-actualization, leaders need to model a behavior of caring about their employees as people first, and as staff second.  This means taking a personal interest in them, their lives, and what matters to them.  It requires getting to know their aspirations, their motivators, and fears – and then working to help them get to where they want to be.  This behavior will set the tone, and create a much more respectful, productive workplace.  

While changing culture is not easy, it is much easier than many believe.  Focusing on both behavioral underpinnings of unhealthy cultures, as well as your own behavior and how you relate to others, you will help improve your organization’s effectiveness while making an enormously positive contribution to the lives of your staffs.

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