Best practices for changing a culture

If you have moved from one organization to another anytime in your career, you know that every company has its own unique culture. Culture is defined as the beliefs, values, norms, and attitudes that form a group’s patterns of thought and action. Put another way, culture can be thought of as “unwritten rules about the way things are done around here.“

Leaders taking the helm of a team, department, division, or company often recognize that the organization’s existing culture may hinder successful strategy execution. Therefore, changing the culture often becomes a priority for new executives. Unfortunately, changing a culture requires changing the ways that people feel, think, and act — which is a significant undertaking.

In my own work and research, I have identified eight best practices for culture change:

1. Engage people in the process People commit to what they help create. The most successful culture changes happen when leaders actively engage people at all levels in all phases of the process and when there is a constant feedback loop between people on the front line and the leadership team. Rather than hinting at the culture you want to see, be explicit about what changes are needed and collaborate with your people to implement the next seven practices.

2. Describe the current and desired cultures Which aspects of the current culture do you want to keep? Which do you want to tweak or shift? What needs to change entirely? Many efforts to change a culture fail because change is described too vaguely and is interpreted in many different ways. Being specific and descriptive is imperative.

3. Focus on a few key behaviors Because culture is an outcome of thoughts, feelings, and actions, the best way to change a culture is to focus on a few key behaviors that, if changed, would significantly impact the overall culture. Again, be specific about who needs to do what differently. For example, in order to create a friendlier environment, one hospital system focused on encouraging staff to greet one another in the hallways.

4. Communicate To drive a culture change, you must communicate a compelling case for change along with your vision and clear expectations. And you have to repeat yourself. A lot. If you are introducing a culture change, you’ve probably been working on this long before you unveil it to the people who are going to execute the day-to-day details. If it’s your idea, by the time you say “let’s go“ you are thinking that everyone should be right there with you. They aren’t. They need time to catch up. 5. Lead by exampleResearch consistently shows that culture is largely top-down. It is imperative for the leader to not only talk about but also demonstrate desired behaviors. If you are trying to create a culture of cost-saving, for example, every eye in the company will be watching to see if you personally make sacrifices in your own budget and spending behaviors. 6. Empower and equip employeesOnce you have engaged people, you need to ensure they are empowered to take action. Empowerment means giving people what they need in order to take action, including access to information, authority, and equipment, as well as the knowledge, skills, and ability to demonstrate the desired behaviors.

7. Recognize progress Think about your organization’s reward structures — both the informal and the formal. Which behaviors are getting reinforced and rewarded? The new ones you want to see or the old behaviors you want to do away with? If the answer is “the old behaviors,“ you most likely need to involve the right people in revising expectations and reward structures. Remember the old adage: Only behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.

8. Maintain momentum Research shows that many culture change efforts fail because attention is only paid to the launch or kickoff. All too often change loses momentum and becomes “flavor of the day“ to people on the front line.

Mack is a Woodland Park based consultant, speaker, and facilitator.