Recently, I was asked to help an organization implement a culture change (their words). Since I have been doing this for a while, I have come to find that many organizations do not understand the depth, commitment, and time it takes to conduct a true change in culture. Prepared for the over the moon desires, I developed some questions for the executive team to answer in our initial meeting in an effort to drill down to items that were more tangible.
When I met with the firm’s executive leadership, I asked the team what their desired outcomes were and what they saw as the best approach to achieve their desires. As I have seen time and again, they used lofty words such as "trust, great place to work, and better communication" (among other shallow phrases), as what they thought was needed to produce the organizational culture they wanted.
Understanding that I was hired to "coach" the executive team, in addition to assist in the culture change, I began to ask questions that would define what success looked like. "Define great place to work. How will you measure an improvement in trust? What are current substandard communication practices?"
About 10 minutes into our meeting, one of the executives stated out-of-the-blue, "I don’t know? That’s why we called you in." I took a second and considered this to be a fair question since I had established that the team had some unrealistic expectations (I have left out discussion about timeline and resources to keep this writing short.)
Keeping as their coach, I asked the executive, "why did you hire me?" His response, to change our culture. "You’re the expert. You tell us what a great place to work looks like. You tell us how to improve communication." The other leaders shook their head in agreement.
At this point, the writing was on the wall. It was clear, the executive team did not want to change their culture. They wanted to pay someone else to fix their culture for them. So I asked the team, "how bad do you want to change your culture?" The President responded, "it is the most important item I am working on. It is at the top of my list of things to do." I said, "Great! How will you know when you can remove culture change from your to-do list?" His response, "when you and I decide we’re good."
After an hour or so, we broke for lunch. I scheduled a follow up with the president and we agreed to put the culture change evolution on hold.
Here are three factors to consider when attempting to change an organization’s culture:
1. Leadership does not go first
There is no question that in order for an organization’s social norms and behaviors to change, leadership must lead. The term leadership suggests that very fact. Yet, many times executives hire a coach or consultant to implement a program that will help employees be a more cohesive group. “We’ll pay you to tell our employees what they need to do.” This strategy will never work and in fact will create at least two more ripples in the undesired culture.
First, employees will learn new norms that will be unfamiliar to management. This will cause more frustration with the already upset frontline. Second, by leadership not participating, they are demonstrating that they themselves do not understand where they fit into the organization’s culture.
All levels of leadership must be committed in a culture change. Leadership cannot delegate responsibility and accountability.
2. Leadership by proxy
On numerous occasions, a firm will hire a coach to do the organization’s dirty work. Whether it be a problem employee or underachieving executive, some firms hire a coach to “fix” behaviors and leadership gaps that should have been identified early in an employees tenure, if not during the hiring/promotion process. This is an avoidance strategy.
If an individual or group is underperforming, the leader is to be accountable. The failure to hold the leader accountable coupled with poor performance of the individual or group s/he oversees is often a main contributor to the undesired culture. Leadership is often their own worst enemy.
3. Culture is not static
An organization’s culture is ever-changing. It is comprised of personality, emotion, ability, and attitudes. These aspects are very fluid and can change instantaneously. If an organization sets a target on “way of being” then that organization is trying to hit a moving target and will never be successful.
When an employee understands his/her accountability, commitment, and purpose they will contribute at a high capacity. The understanding of self-purpose is the key employee engagement. Once that is understood, there is no need for fancy pictures and motivational posters.
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