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How to Drive Cultural Change in a Company

People sitting at a table having a conversation and shaking hands.

Hav­ing a clear and strong com­pa­ny cul­ture has nev­er been more impor­tant in the mod­ern work­place. Not only does cul­ture inform a com­pa­ny’s brand iden­ti­ty — its core val­ues and objec­tives — hav­ing a strong com­pa­ny cul­ture helps to attract and retain bet­ter tal­ent and dri­ves down turnover, while also reflect­ing the demands of new mil­len­ni­al work­ers.

Cor­po­rate cul­ture often devel­ops organ­i­cal­ly. Form­ing slow­ly over the years, it is rein­forced and reartic­u­lat­ed by the behav­iours of both low­er-lev­el employ­ees and man­age­ment. For an estab­lished com­pa­ny, the cul­ture may have orig­i­nat­ed from the ideals of its orig­i­nal founders and lead­ers. But where the com­pa­ny has evolved over time, the cul­ture may no longer be in line with the company’s cur­rent val­ues, mis­sion and goals.

If the cur­rent cul­ture doesn’t effec­tive­ly sup­port the achieve­ment of the organisation’s goals, and doesn’t con­sis­tent­ly echo com­pa­ny val­ues, it may be time for a cul­tur­al change.

Dri­ving cul­tur­al change is a com­plex and dif­fi­cult under­tak­ing for any busi­ness. Com­pa­ny cul­ture is an ingrained com­po­nent of any busi­ness — it’s built into the foun­da­tions of every organ­i­sa­tion and it influ­ences the behav­iours of employ­ees at every lev­el. It takes con­sis­ten­cy, patience, com­mit­ment, time and the use of inno­v­a­tive tools to suc­cess­ful­ly achieve cul­tur­al change.

In this post, we’ll break down the three inte­gral steps busi­ness­es can take to dri­ve com­pa­ny change, while ensur­ing a smooth tran­si­tion to a new culture.

Step One: Eval­u­ate Your Cur­rent Com­pa­ny Culture

Before set­ting out to dri­ve cul­tur­al change, it is essen­tial to under­stand and eval­u­ate the exist­ing com­pa­ny cul­ture. If a cul­ture has devel­oped nat­u­ral­ly and with­out clear core val­ues in mind, it may not accu­rate­ly rep­re­sent what a busi­ness stands for. Many com­pa­nies have an idea of the organ­i­sa­tion­al val­ues they prop­a­gate, but are at a loss when asked to demon­strate how they’re effec­tive­ly imple­ment­ed. For exam­ple, an organ­i­sa­tion may claim to val­ue open­ness and trans­paren­cy, but, if many of the major deci­sions are made behind closed doors, the cul­ture is at odds with the organisation’s activ­i­ties and processes.

Evi­dence of a busi­ness cul­ture needs to be tan­gi­ble and observ­able— only then can com­pa­nies deter­mine if it aligns with its core val­ues. So the first step is to estab­lish what the cul­ture is through impar­tial obser­va­tions of the cul­ture in action. This cul­ture audit should con­sid­er all of the organisation’s work sys­tems, includ­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion process­es, pay prac­tices, per­for­mance man­age­ment, inter­view pro­ce­dures and employ­ee reward sys­tems. Con­sid­er whether each of these prac­tices align with a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture and what that cul­ture looks like.

At Clear Review, we recent­ly com­mis­sioned an Investors in Peo­ple inde­pen­dent audit, which pro­vid­ed us with an in-depth under­stand­ing of our cul­ture along with its strengths and poten­tial weak­ness­es (we’re delight­ed to say that we were award­ed the Investors in Peo­ple Gold accred­i­ta­tion as a result).

Take a cul­ture walk

A cul­ture walk is the prac­tice of active­ly engag­ing with the work­space and employ­ees with­in the organ­i­sa­tion. Walk­ing around the office and exam­in­ing dai­ly oper­a­tions will illus­trate how com­pa­ny behav­iours con­tribute to the cur­rent culture.

Begin with the space of the office itself, considering:

  • How is the office laid out? Where do peo­ple sit?
  • How are com­mon areas utilised?
  • What is dis­played on walls/​desks/​boards?

If the com­pa­ny val­ues team­work and col­lab­o­ra­tion, but employ­ees are seg­re­gat­ed and work from ster­ilised cubi­cles, it’s a sign that com­pa­ny cul­ture is not being prioritised.

Take the time to talk to employ­ees and take note of any habit­u­al behav­iours. You may choose to set up inter­views or cir­cu­late a sur­vey to col­lect staff feed­back. Con­sid­er the following:

  • How do your employee’s inter­act with one anoth­er? Are con­ver­sa­tions com­mon­place or is com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­duct­ed through emails and memos?
  • What is the tone of com­mu­ni­ca­tion — infor­mal and friend­ly, or pro­fes­sion­al or distant?
  • How are con­flicts and issues resolved?
  • What is the rela­tion­ship between senior lead­ers and mid­dle man­agers, both with each oth­er and with the broad­er workforce?

Reg­is­ter emo­tion­al respons­es to tasks and projects. Emo­tions are use­ful indi­ca­tors of what your employ­ees’ val­ue and, con­verse­ly, what they don’t.

By col­lat­ing the infor­ma­tion gath­ered dur­ing a cul­ture walk, the exist­ing cul­ture will quick­ly become apparent.

Step Two: Devel­op Strate­gic Direc­tion and Com­pa­ny Vision

The sec­ond stage of imple­ment­ing change is estab­lish­ing a clear pic­ture of what you want the organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture to look like. This means devel­op­ing a clear mis­sion, vision and set of val­ues from a strate­gic and val­ue-based perspective.

Begin by ask­ing a series of questions:

  • What are your business’s most impor­tant values?
  • Are these val­ues appar­ent in your exist­ing cul­ture? If not, why not?
  • Do your employ­ees under­stand, pos­sess and work towards achiev­ing these values?
  • Is your mis­sion and vision clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed and disseminated?
  • What cul­tur­al ele­ments can enable change?

Tar­get­ing key­stone behaviours

Once a clear direc­tion is set, the next step is to iden­ti­fy which areas you will tar­get. The key is to pri­ori­tise a few behav­iours. All too often, com­pa­nies attempt a one-off cul­ture change exer­cise, try­ing to tack­le every­thing at the same time. How­ev­er, we shouldn’t under­es­ti­mate the extent to which the cur­rent cul­ture is ingrained in employ­ees’ habits and atti­tudes. Attempt­ing to trans­form every sys­tem and process will only lead to employ­ee dis­sat­is­fac­tion, frus­tra­tion and over­whelm. As Jon Katzen­bach, the leader of Booz & Com­pa­ny, explains, a few key behav­iours can have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate effect on the suc­cess of cul­tur­al change.

Iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic behav­iours that have impli­ca­tions organ­i­sa­tion-wide. These crit­i­cal few behav­iours, also known as key­stone behav­iours, are pat­terns of behav­iour that are observ­able, repeat­able, mea­sur­able and which have an impact on the organisation’s strate­gic and oper­a­tional objec­tives. These should not be one-off actions or pro­ce­dur­al changes, but, rather, the habit­u­al ways of act­ing that have become a stan­dard for the organisation.

Step Three: Imple­ment Cul­tur­al Change

The final step is the most dif­fi­cult, but most impor­tant: busi­ness­es need to imple­ment the cul­tur­al change. This involves unlearn­ing old val­ues, behav­iours and atti­tudes and can be dif­fi­cult for employ­ees who dis­like change and are adjust­ed to a set way of work­ing. While you may face resis­tance from employ­ees, it’s not impos­si­ble to imple­ment cul­tur­al change successfully.

Lead by example

Suc­cess­ful­ly chang­ing com­pa­ny cul­ture is depen­dent upon the man­age­r­i­al style used and it is essen­tial that exec­u­tives and senior man­age­ment sup­port the cul­tur­al change. In all actions, words used and behav­iours exe­cut­ed, lead­ers should be role mod­els to the broad­er work­force and embrace the desired val­ues — and even pri­ori­tise these val­ues above prof­itabil­i­ty and results. Where lead­ers fail to do this (and have been giv­en appro­pri­ate sup­port and time to change), they may need to be replaced with peo­ple who sup­port the new val­ues. For a cul­ture change to suc­ceed, it must be tak­en seri­ous­ly and tough deci­sions often need to be made.

Clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion of cul­tur­al change

Cul­tur­al change relies on behav­iour­al change, but behav­iour­al change can­not take place effec­tive­ly if the new cul­ture is not accu­rate­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed and rein­forced to all mem­bers of staff on an ongo­ing basis. Tak­ing the time to ensure that each employ­ee under­stands and is aligned with the new cul­ture sup­ports high lev­els of engage­ment and com­mit­ment across the work­force. Train­ing serves to define what the changes mean and the expect­ed behav­iours of staff, while focus groups help to trans­late the company’s mis­sion, vision and val­ues in the con­text of each employee’s role.

How­ev­er, com­mu­ni­ca­tion needs to be ongo­ing — change doesn’t occur overnight. Chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dia­logue need to be open and con­sis­tent­ly mon­i­tor the impact of the cul­tur­al change. The use of mod­ern per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware allows employ­ees and man­agers to col­lab­o­rate on agile SMART objec­tives and the unique upward-align­ing process ensures that all objec­tives sup­port the organisation’s over­all mis­sion and long-term goals. This type of soft­ware also ensures that indi­vid­u­als have ongo­ing per­son­al devel­op­ment goals that are linked to the com­pa­nies val­ues which can be reviewed and eval­u­at­ed by HR and man­age­ment to ensure that they are align with the new com­pa­ny cul­ture. This way, if old behav­iours and habits begin to seep into the work­place, HR and senior man­age­ment can act quickly.

Pro­vide ongo­ing feedback

As with any major shake-up, it can take time before every­body is on the same page. Both employ­ees and man­age­ment may be uneasy in the face of rad­i­cal change. Trans­form­ing mind­sets and instincts is not an easy under­tak­ing — espe­cial­ly when these gut reac­tions and meth­ods have been trust­ed for so long. There­fore, it becomes essen­tial to pro­vide fre­quent feed­back to employ­ees and offer ongo­ing sup­port and encour­age­ment as they align to the chang­ing culture.

Con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware puts ongo­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and feed­back at the cen­tre of per­for­mance man­age­ment. With inte­grat­ed check-ins, man­agers can dis­cuss val­ues and cul­ture reg­u­lar­ly in con­junc­tion with progress against per­son­al and team goals. Real-time 360 degree feed­back enables col­leagues to recog­nise each oth­er when the right behav­iours have been demon­strat­ed, and man­agers to pro­vide instant feed­back when behav­iours need course cor­rect­ing. This leads to pos­i­tive behav­iours being rein­forced and dis­crep­an­cies around stan­dards of behav­iour being quick­ly flagged and resolved, both vital to achiev­ing a suc­cess­ful and last­ing cul­ture change.