The Challenge of Changing Culture by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine January 2003
Whenever the subject of large-scale organizational change is discussed, the challenge of shifting the organization's culture to support the desired changes usually comes up as well. Many people would like to give you the impression that significant shifts in company cultures are more commonplace than not – my opinion is that we are only supporting our Western cultural tendency towards egoism when we make such claims. Culture change is both possible and necessary to help improve performance, but the predominant mechanisms that are touted for making this change happen rarely provide the desired results.
This failure is not as much due to the tools that are used as it is based in our misconceptions about what it takes to shift culture. A given person's cultural roots extend much beyond the walls of a given company, a given period of time, or a geographic location. These roots have been developing since the onset of time, and for us to think that we can significantly shift something in a year or so that took thousands, if not millions of years to develop, is well, a bit egotistical.
Just as it is egotistical to expect someone from another country to begin thinking and acting like an American (whatever that means) when they move here, we are only fooling ourselves if we expect our people to begin thinking and acting differently (the true evidence of a culture shift) simply as a result of participating in a training session or listening to a well-crafted sales pitch about the need to change at the monthly employee meeting. For example, if you ever wondered why your company's attempt to install quality circles or self-directed work teams failed, you might want to look at the environment where your people spent thirty-nine hours a week on the job, instead of focusing on the one hour a week that was spent in a team meeting.
The collective culture of a given group of people is a compilation of each person's existing beliefs and mental models. These beliefs and mental models are reflected in our day-to-day behaviors, but the behaviors are not necessarily accurate or complete representations of what we each personally think and believe – they are only rough, and often misleading, indicators. More importantly, these beliefs and mental models are primarily forged by emotion – as the emotional intensity of a given event increases, the potential impact that the event will have on our belief systems increases as well.
Culture is not created in the workplace – instead, it is shaped and shifted. While it is true that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it is also true that we normally spend our time at work performing the same routines and behaving in similar manners as the days go by. With each day, we reinforce the existing belief systems we currently have in the absence of any compelling reason to change. Additionally, in most organizations, the potential for intense negative emotional events far outweighs the potential for intensely positive ones. We are shaping our company culture each day, whether we recognize that fact or not.
A manager might learn some great stuff in that two-day training session about creating a high performance work culture, and he might even leave the session with a strong desire to try out some of the new tools. All it takes however is one highly negative and emotional five-minute encounter after returning to the workplace to wipe out most, if not all, of these good intentions. Very few companies know how to create an intensely positive work event or experience, but they have mastered the ability to bring out the negative emotions in people.
Significant emotional events are required to significantly shift an individual's belief system. When a company goes through a significant downsizing, merger, or shutdown, culture shifts occur, both at the organizational level and at the individual level. Properly managed, these events can lead to significant culture shifts (for those people that remain). Unfortunately, these events are rare. They also are not the type of experience that you want to intentionally create in order to “make your people change.”
A few years ago, I came across the phrase “To change a culture, you have to change the conversations.” When a member of management talks to a front-line employee, they are making a cultural statement. Their words, behaviors, and emotional intensity send a message to that employee about what the company expects and wants to be. Think of the number of conversations that occur in your workplace each day – are they representative of the culture that is touted and desired? What would it take to shift the nature of these conversations? How can you get all members of management to conduct conversations in a similar manner?
More often than not, people answer ‘no' to the first question, because it is very difficult to overcome years of ‘traditional' management. This is why companies that start from scratch with self-directed work teams or process control methodologies have a much higher probability of sustaining their efforts that those who are trying to shift the culture towards teaming or process improvement. That said, even the new companies have significant challenges before them, because the predominant belief systems of the people they will have to hire are probably not based on these concepts.
There is no one answer for the remaining two questions. I can say that things will not change if you don't begin to explore and have regular dialogue about the nature of your conversations at work with your peers and the people you represent. In those workplaces where I have personally experienced a high performance work culture, I can easily say that culture was discussed at most, if not all, leadership meetings. Additionally, each significant change in a key work system was evaluated against the impact that it would have on the current culture.
To begin shifting cultural beliefs, we need to first understand and appreciate the roots of those beliefs. If the beliefs and mental models (culture) that are in place differ drastically from what we desire, then we need to find high leverage ways to begin shifting those beliefs. Sending people to training or preaching to them about the culture we desire will create awareness, but they will not shift beliefs. We have to change the way we think, the way we talk to all employees, and the way we behave at work on a daily basis.
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