The purpose of writing this brief article is threefold: to explain what organisational culture is and why it is becoming increasingly critical to organisational success; to highlight the main tools leaders have for changing culture; and to encourage you to play your part in creating and influencing the culture in your organisation.
Why is organisational culture important?
There are several reasons why it’s important to have culture on your radar, including:
- Culture defines your business. It is the means through which you will be successful or not in achieving business results.
- If you don’t consciously drive and develop your culture, your decisions and behaviours will have a cultural impact anyway but not necessarily in the ways that are most beneficial to the achievement of your vision for the business.
- There is increasingly more emphasis on people wanting to work for companies with ‘good’ cultures. You won’t attract and retain the best people if they don’t consider your culture one they want to work in.
What is organisational culture?
There are many definitions of what culture is. At its simplest, it’s ‘how things are done around here’, for example, business processes, procedures, rules, norms, behaviour, etc. In many ways, it’s everything that happens in your business and every decision that is made. How your customers feel after dealing with your business, whether people want to work for you, how innovative your company is, are all aspects of your culture.
There is a deeper level of what culture means. If we look at what most influences how things are done, we then come to our beliefs, values and assumptions – our mindsets. If I value integrity, then I will be honest with my clients or customers about what I am able to do even if it means risking losing their business. If I believe that if I speak up at work I risk losing my job, I may decide to not say what I think during meetings. It is the invisible and, often unspoken, mindsets that influence culture most. This is one of the reasons why changing culture is a challenging and slow process. For lasting cultural transformation, people’s mindsets need to be changed and this is not an easy task.
How is culture formed?
A culture is formed whenever a group of people come together over a period of time with a shared purpose or focus. Culture is formed from messages that are sent and received about what behaviours are valued. These behaviours eventually become habitual and are usually no longer questioned. We forget how they came about in the first place – they simply become the way things are done. Even though a new person into a culture may initially question or challenge the ways things are done, they are also under quite a bit of pressure to conform to the norm.
Defining the culture you want
If you are in the position of starting a business or even if your business has been going for some time, defining the kind of culture that will be the best fit with your business strategy is time well spent. For example, let’s suppose the success of your business strategy is dependent on your developing or changing your culture to a high performance one. Once this critical decision has been made, it is then important to articulate what this would look like in your organisation. This might translate to changing your performance plans and processes, exiting some people from the business, training leaders in coaching skills, having bonus systems revamped, etc.
How do we change culture?
There are three main areas cultural messages come from: behaviours, systems and symbols. If you want to change your culture, you need to examine the behaviours, systems and symbols in your organisation, and ensure they are aligned with the culture you require to achieve your vision. Assessing your culture first is important so that the gap, that exists between what you have and what you want, is clarified. You can then use the following three tools to plan your strategy for achieving the culture you desire.
Behaviours demonstrated by the leaders in your organisation have a powerful impact on your culture. Every interaction they have, decision they make and what they seem to prioritise and value, are all under scrutiny by the rest of the organisation. These behaviours communicate what the culture is far more than what is written in official vision or values statements or other written communications.
If you consider the effects of a frequent flyer system and its influence on our buying habits, or other systems of rewards and punishments and their impact on what we do, you can appreciate how much systems drive our behaviours. The systems and structures in your organisation play a large part in supporting or inhibiting the kind of culture you want. For example, you may desire an innovative culture but your systems may make it impossible for people to come up with the implementation of ideas quickly. All systems whether they are HR systems, planning systems or any other type of process need to be examined for how well they support the culture you want.
Symbols influence our behaviours in conscious and unconscious ways. Symbols are usually ‘non-verbal’ communications and their message about what is valued or not can be very powerful. Some common examples include: office lay-outs, titles and other status symbols, how time and money are prioritised, who gets promoted or not, etc. I recently facilitated an induction program for an organisation and the Managing Director presented a session on values and strategy. Nearly every participant rated that session the highest and commented on the positive symbolic message that was communicated by the MD taking time out of her schedule to be at the program.
Changing and aligning your behaviours, systems and symbols can have a profound impact on your culture. However, in order to foster lasting change in your culture, you also need to work on the mindsets of your people. Your people’s mindsets (values, assumptions, feelings, etc) drive their behaviour and this affects their motivation and the way they translate your vision for your business into action.
People’s values, beliefs and assumptions are the most difficult and important to change if you really want to make an impact on your culture. Finding out what the current mindsets are involves listening to what people say, asking questions and reading beneath the surface. For example, there may be a large number of people in your organisation who believe that it’s not that important to be accountable for results. They may have formed this belief from a variety of sources – a large number of leaders in the business who accept sub-standard performance, performance management systems that are not used consistently within the organisation, and leaders who blame and find excuses for why they haven’t achieved their targets, etc.
You can probably understand how it might take a long time and quite a bit of work to change these mindsets. Firstly, they don’t change easily especially when they are being reinforced in many different ways. Secondly, we tend to stick to our beliefs even when there is a strong weight of evidence against them. In fact, if we do finally start changing our beliefs and then one thing happens that reminds us of our old beliefs, we usually go back to them in an even more entrenched way. Thirdly, changing mindsets is like trying to change a habit. We all know that changing habits takes quite a bit of time and constant practice and attention.
Your part in your company’s culture
Undertaking culture change is a complex task that requires a systematic and long-term plan. This article can only bring some of the aspects of this task to your attention at a high level and hopefully ensure that it is on your radar along with the other business issues on your mind. Changing or forming the right culture for your business starts with you: what you do, how your actions and decisions are interpreted, and what systems you implement.
This article appeared in:
Venture Dispatches #21, (The Venture Group’s e-newsletter), July, 2005.