The culture always wins. It doesn’t matter if you are a company that wants to move to the next level of performance or a community that wants to transform how the various stakeholder groups interact and relate. Your culture is perfectly structured and aligned to deliver exactly the results you are delivering today. If you want to fundamentally change your results, you must change your culture.
Conventional wisdom says that changing the culture is the perquisite for changing performance and behavior. It assumes that changing how people feel will cause them to change how they think, perform, and behave.
It sounds easy doesn’t it? Simply waive your hands, say a few magic business buzzwords, and appeal to common sense and shared beliefs. Do those things long enough and presto change-o watch the culture change right before your eyes.
If only it were that easy.
Your culture is the DNA of your organization. It is your habits displayed over time. It is defined by the language that you use; the legends that you create; the symbols that describe what is important; and the values that permeate how you deliver your products and services.
Some individuals will transform how they think and act based on a profound emotional experience. That group isn’t everyone, however, and it probably isn’t large enough to tip the scales toward lasting change.
There is also the problem of different definitions. For example, everyone may agree that “honesty is the best policy,” but one person’s candor can be another’s callous, inappropriate attack.
Changing your culture isn’t like rolling out a new computer system with a defined ending date. It is a continuous effort requiring time, attention, and resources. Expect to invest two to three years to see a difference in your company – and even longer to change the culture in a community.
The work doesn’t end when you think you are done. Culture is a cruel mistress. Leave it alone, and it will show up at the absolute worst time to cause you grief.
Here are four ideas to move your forward as you change your culture to change your results:
- Change change. More specifically, change the way you think and talk about change. In nimble, responsive, and relevant organizations, change is an everyday component of getting better. It emanates from every level and not just from the top. It is driven by a desire to continuously improve how you live your values and deliver your product or service.
- Generate creative tension to create urgency. People change for basically two reasons: crisis pushes them to change and opportunity pulls them to change. Crisis works, but when everything becomes a crisis then nothing is a crisis. The best long-term strategy for creating urgency is to unite everyone behind a compelling opportunity. This is the hardest work you will ever do as a leader. That’s why so many leaders jump on real or perceived crisis as the motivator for change. Remember the words of the Old Testament writer: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
- Use all the levers at your disposal. You create new habits by teaching new behavior and performance; reinforcing desired performance; and establishing consequences for doing it wrong. In organizations, there is any number of levers at your disposal to accomplish that goal: hiring, promotion, performance reviews, recognition and awards, work processes, communication vehicles. This list could go on, but you get the point. Culture change ultimately follows behavior and performance change – not the other way around. Use every lever at your disposal to accomplish that change.
- Lead the change, don’t manage it. People want to be led through change not managed through it. You are asking others to follow you on a journey that removes them from their comfort zone. That requires earned trust and credibility. Most important, it requires you go first to model the change you want in every aspect of your performance and behavior.
You must change the culture to change your long-term results. It sounds easy. The steps, in fact, are relatively simple. It is the discipline to stay at the work until it is done that takes courage and tenacity.
Randy Pennington is a business performance expert, award-winning author and speaker, and leading authority on leadership, culture, and change. Through his engaging articles, books, and presentations, Randy teaches companies and associations how to make change work within their organization; achieve positive results; effectively lead through transformation efforts; and build a strong organizational culture to safeguard success.