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To Change Organization Culture You Must Change This First

by Lynette Silva

Recognize This! – All organizational change rides on changing the daily behaviors of the humans first.

Women workingCompany culture. What is it? What does it do? How can you change it or at least manipulate it? All are questions we encounter often with the organizations we work with regularly. And it’s such a popular topic because leaders realize they are working within a strong and forceful culture, whether it’s the one they want, the one they inherited or the one they’ve “allowed to happen” over time.

Culture has been a topic of this blog, our books, and the WorkHuman movement many times. Because of its importance, it’s a topic I like to revisit and bring back to the fore from time to time. This time, it’s a terrific article on the 10 principles of organizational culture by Jon Katzenbach, et. al. in Strategy + Business. I like particularly how the article helps frame the answers to the most common questions about organizational culture.

What is organizational culture?

At its simplest, culture is all about the underlying behaviors of the people:

“A company’s culture is its basic personality, the essence of how its people interact and work… Culture is the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.”

And because humans are involved, change can be complex:

“Corporate cultures are constantly self-renewing and slowly evolving: What people feel, think, and believe is reflected and shaped by the way they go about their business. Formal efforts to change a culture (to replace it with something entirely new and different) seldom manage to get to the heart of what motivates people, what makes them tick. Strongly worded memos from on high are deleted within hours. You can plaster the walls with large banners proclaiming new values, but people will go about their days, right beneath those signs, continuing with the habits that are familiar and comfortable.”

Why try to change culture if it’s so difficult to do?

The simple answer – because the benefits are astounding. Organizational culture is a top component of employee engagement. And as Katzenbach points out, it’s the engagement of the people in achieving your priorities through your culture that drives business results:

“When positive culture forces and strategic priorities are in sync, companies can draw energy from the way people feel. This accelerates a company’s movement to gain competitive advantage, or regain advantages that have been lost.”

How do you change organizational culture? It’s not easy, but it is simple – focus on the behaviors of the humans involved. Katzenbach recommends:

“Behaviors are the most powerful determinant of real change. What people actually do matters more than what they say or believe. And so to obtain more positive influences from your cultural situation, you should start working on changing the most critical behaviors — the mind-sets will follow. Over time, altered behavior patterns and habits can produce better results.”

This illustration from Katzenbach shows the steps change culture – notice how they all focus in one way or another on behaviors. More to the point, every one of these 10 principles can be strongly influenced through social recognition practices that encourage every employee to notice and very specifically appreciate the desired behaviors in others. True social recognition reaches across organization and geographic boundaries to unite everyone in a common sense of purpose and mission in a way that visibly shares the successes and contributions of others in demonstrating those desired behaviors.

Need additional proof? Look to the seemingly unchangeable culture of the U.S. Navy. As WorkHuman speaker and author of Give and Take and Originals, Adam Grant points out in an HBR article on building a culture originality, if you want to “unleash innovation and change in the ultimate bastion of bureaucracy,” you need to change the accepted and prized behaviors. In this case, find, nurture and replicate “a network of original thinkers who would collaborate to question long-held assumptions and generate new ideas.”

Do you have the company culture you want? Or are you limping along in a culture that holds you – and everyone – back?


About the Author

Lynette Silva is a principal consultant on Workhuman’s Strategy & Consulting team, partnering with clients on change strategies to make work more human.

Profile Photo of Lynette Silva Heelan