“Few concepts in business contain so many powerful truths, and at the same time so much crap, as corporate culture.”
– Leverage, cover
When I say the word, ‘culture’ what do you think that means?
That might be a simple enough word, but it can be interpreted so many ways. And that is why there is so much written about corporate culture and how to improve it. It seems like this amorphous, vague thing that encompasses everything that is good or bad about a company. If you’re a fish, it’s like water. It surrounds you and affects everything you do, but you don’t even know it’s there.
This is why John R. Childress, author of Leverage: The CEO’s Guide to Culture, wanted to clarify one of the most important subjects for one of the most important roles in a corporation – the CEO. Now, he’s not saying it’s THE most important thing, because he wrote a previous book on corporate strategy (Fastbreak: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution), but he claims that both strategy and culture must be aligned and work together in order for a corporation to be successful.
This well-researched book is full of great corporate examples for every point the author makes. And his no-nonsense style of sharing a practical view creates a high level of credibility. Of course, being the co-founder of the Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting group and 35 years of experience with senior executive teams provides a little credibility also.
Change culture by changing behavior
"It is easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting."
Many platitudes and approaches claim to change cultures, but when you get down to the core of culture change it is basically the change in behavior of many individuals that determines how the culture will change. Repeated behaviors over time are called habits.
Stephen Covey revealed the secret to breaking a habit when he said, “It takes a habit to break a habit.”
So just talking about culture change and hoping people change is not an effective strategy. You need to have people actually change their behavior and stick with it.
One aspect Childress discusses (although somewhat briefly) is understanding how the brain works regarding human motivation. A big piece of that is what psychologist Leon Festinger coined as cognitive dissonance. That is when a person is confronted by a change and a choice between what they know and believe to be true, and new contradictory information. It’s the dissonance or discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.
When people are presented with a new culture that is different from their habits they can act in dramatic ways, such as attach the new process with reasons it won’t work, give up and be disenfranchised, or play dumb and hope the need for change disappears. This is normal so the point is not to avoid the dissonance but work through it so that the fear of loss is lessened and new ideas or different ways of working can be embraced.
Uncertainty and loss of control are some fears that can cause resistance to change. So, one way to replace current habits with new ones is to practice. And that means experimenting and trying new things – over and over again – until you’re not ‘trying’ anymore and it’s a new habit. The new behaviors need to be ‘grooved’ in the mind, and that only happens through repetition. John rails on consultants who think an exercise in a workshop will cause people to change.
Change behavior by changing processes
"Logic and reason, unfortunately, have little to do with making change actually happen."
When employees show up to a new job for the first time they are completely open for a big change. They are ready for someone to tell them, “This is how you do this.” Unfortunately, once they learn, they don’t like to hear that again. But when you change the underlying processes of how things are done, you change behaviors. John says the most important change that must first happen before the culture can shift is a change in the behavior of the senior leadership team, because the organization will follow the team like a shadow (mostly subconsciously). That is where they learn how to react to circumstances and what is acceptable behavior.
Processes that might need reevaluating are hiring, new employee onboarding, promotion and development, innovation, and middle managers leadership. These have the most impact of key behaviors that affect the culture.
There are formal processes, and then there are behaviors that are just common, or the norm, that need to change, because they can start a chain reaction that cause additional adverse behaviors and eventually (or constantly) no one takes responsibility. That’s why it needs to start at the top.
John asserts, “Behaviors either support other behaviors or kill them. Platitudes do nothing for anyone.” We’re all connected and affect each other with our actions. It’s important for key individuals to start the change, then others will follow their example, or the effects of their actions will ripple throughout the organization.
Changing processes, both formal and informal, will change behaviors. I’m even working on my own process change. I wake up much earlier and write stuff that’s in my head, so now I feel more like a writer. I’m also using stopwatches or timers more often when I need to focus on a task. That is changing my behavior.
Change the culture without calling it ‘culture change’
"If you want to make enemies, try to change something."
No matter what change effort you launch, there will be those who resist. And because so many change efforts have been a complete failure, or implemented poorly, many people will have an instant prejudice about any change that appears. So, one tactic is to implement in a way that you’re not announcing a ‘culture change’ but rather aiming for a new vision. Peter Senge said that “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” So if you can couch your efforts from a different angle, you might get less resistance.
Childress talks about using a slogan or phrase that people in the company will believe. He shares the great story of Continental Airlines who was at the bottom in almost every category before Gordon Bethune turned things around. Their transformational slogan was, “Becoming profitable in 1995 and running an airline we can all be proud of.” They changed the culture as an intended by product of their new goal.
I know I affect the culture in my corporation, whether it’s with my local group or at different organizational levels, even companywide. Each of our actions matter, and create the culture that others around us experience.
What kind of culture are you swimming in?