Strategic Planning

The 5 keys leaders need to transform their organization’s culture

March 4, 2020 6:45 pm



Many people like to think of organizational culture as “the way we do things around here,” but it’s more complicated than that. I’m partial to the way MIT’s Edgar Schein describes it. He says culture consists of three layers:

Artifacts. These are things we use to define our group: the way we design our work spaces (open, closed, hierarchical), the things we hang on the walls (awards, pictures of founders, pictures of new employees, funky art) and the way we dress (formal, informal, uniforms). 

Espoused values. These are the things we say we stand for: our written codes of ethics, our protocols and our guidelines. 

Assumptions. These are the key to culture: beliefs handed down from one employee to another over time, with some becoming so deep that people don’t even talk about them anymore — they just act on them. 

Often, those assumptions push us in ways that are contrary to what we say we stand for. As an example, potential employees may be told that an organization promotes a “family friendly” culture. They may see pictures of spouses, partners and children front and center on people’s desks. But after taking the job, they may quickly learn that few people use their full allotment of vacation and that employees rarely turn down overtime requests, because such approaches are presumed to be career killers.

You can redecorate and write a new mission statement, but you won’t really change your culture unless you surface and challenge assumptions about: 

  • Success and failure
  • Sacred cows (people, processes or products)
  • Power and status (how it’s gained or lost, who should or shouldn’t have it) 

The types of culture change to pursue

Culture change shouldn’t be a fad or a way for leaders to impose their will on a team. Change should be looked at through two lenses: alignment with business strategy and employee well-being.

For example, many organizations have realized they have an analog culture in a digital world and that they must shift to a digital mindset. To achieve strategic success, the change must be universal, not just an initiative among the tech staff. It should encompass everything from record-keeping to data management to product development to communication with customers and colleagues.

On the employee front, organizations may learn through surveys or employee feedback that the culture is excessively top-down or uncollaborative, or perhaps unwelcoming to women and racial minorities. In this scenario, change is essential to the recruitment and retention of great staff and to a healthier work environment. 

5 keys to cultural transformation

Culture change can seem overwhelming. It can’t be done just by decree, although support from the top is essential. If employees view the culture as toxic, you need to build trust as you initiate change.

Begin the process by examining what I call the five key change accelerators: values, skills, tools, systems and assumptions. 

Let’s say you’ve determined that your organization has a silo culture in which work groups are often in tension. You want a more collaborative culture. As you roll out your change, consider:

1. Values. Have we established collaboration and teamwork as top values? Do we talk about those concepts in our routine meetings and conversations? Do our leaders not only speak to them but model them?

2. Skills. What basic competencies do we expect people to have in a collaborative culture? Communication (both written and oral when sharing updates and ideas)? Empathy? Listening? Emotional intelligence? Do we hire for these skills? Can our current employees help us upgrade those skills?

3. Tools. What hardware and software do we have to facilitate collaboration? Do we make it easy to access and share information on team projects? Do we provide technology for remote staff to feel connected?

4. Systems. Do we embed collaboration in every possible system we have? Note that systems include hiring, meetings, evaluations, workflow, promotions, quality control processes, lines of report — you get the idea.

5. Assumptions. Does each of our employees know that bullies don’t win, that hoarding information is the way to fail and that problems are best solved at the team level rather than by punting them to bosses? 

Note that this five-point framework can apply just as easily if the desired change is to a digital-forward, customer-centric or entrepreneurial culture. It also can apply to organizations of any size, although the larger the organization, the more likely there is to be a series of microcultures within the overall corporate culture.

In that scenario, it’s wise to work on what I call a “block by block” basis in which top leadership establishes the goals for the overall culture, then does a deep dive into each microculture to help it evolve. In a big, networked organization, each part of the network should examine its own culture and how it compares with the desired culture for the organization.

Regardless of the size and type of your organization, if you don’t work on each of the five change accelerators, you’ll impede your transformation. 

The link to workplace integrity

I use this five-point rubric when working with organizations that want to ensure they promote workplace integrity, meaning environments that are free of harassment, discrimination and incivility. I ask teams of employees to look at whether each of the five accelerators helps the organization establish an atmosphere of respect and trust. If not, what do they need to do in each area as individuals and as work teams, and how could the organization’s leaders help? 

And the most important question of all: If outsiders observed your everyday interactions for a week, what would they say about your culture? Would they describe the type of culture for which you strive?

Remember, when it comes to creating and maintaining organizational culture, the tone starts at the top.


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