now abundant evidence that culture makes a difference to performance; we
know that leaders increasingly need concepts and tools for working with
culture in varied and subtle ways” Ed Schein The Corporate Culture Survival Guide
about Culture Change
Workplace Culture -- 7
“We need to change the culture” is a much-repeated
management mantra on almost every leader’s lips these days. Yet culture is
notoriously difficult to change. It wins out time and again over attempts
to change it.
seems so intangible, elusive and hard to grasp. In frustration, some
toss in the towel, dismissing culture as one of those soft-issues that’s
too fluffy and ephemeral to manage. Other times, it gets discounted as a
trivial side-show or distraction not deserving of serious attention.
Research shows culture profoundly affects every facet of an organisation.
It determines what’s possible or not in an organisation. It’s arguably the
‘X’ factor in change success. Companies from Google to Virgin are quick to
trace their success to dynamic cultures that foster high levels of
commitment, innovation, employee satisfaction and identification with what
the firm is all about.
are both talent-attracters and retainers. Everyone wants to work there
and they want to stay. People often leave a place because they don’t fit
in the culture
cultures help people achieve, sparking-off higher levels of commitment
and engagement. Disengagement is epidemic at work, with huge indirect
losses in productivity.
cultures generate energy, ideas and improvement – they create cohesion
and help people get along well, collaborate with each other, and stick
together. Disgruntled, de-motivated people drag down these things.
leaders are acutely aware how constructive cultures help people perform –
and equally aware how dislocated ones breed under-performance. Leaders are
often told ‘getting the culture right’ is the most critical thing to focus
on for sustainable results – and we frequently define a great leader as
someone turns a dysfunctional culture around.
Culture is also
often the hidden factor in change success too. For instance, change
strategies that work in one organisation can fall flat in another – and
the variable is often culture. While there are no magic bullets or
quick-fixes, if you understand culture, and learn some lessons about what
seems to work and what doesn’t, then you have a chance of changing it for
"The big secret to our unique
Virgin culture is simple – there is no secret. We just
know that creating and maintaining our enviable culture is all about
infusing our core values into everything we do – we get that
right and the Virgin culture just flows. Our culture is unique
– we know it, we're proud of it and we work hard to make it a
So -- What
Makes Up Culture?
commonly described as “the way we do things around here” but it’s much
more than that.
comprises things we have to know, do, think and say in order to be
accepted and identified as part of a particular group.
cryptic encoding that determines how people co-exist, how they respond
in various circumstances and how they make sense of what happens and
what is done. Culture’s the glue holding everything else in
organisations together (Goffee and Jones 1996).
Put simply, it’s
the sum total of everything that’s been going on and continues to be
ongoing in an organisation.
Ed Schein, long-time cultural thinker, says culture is “a pattern of
basic assumptions - invented, discovered or developed by a given group as
it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal
integration - that has worked well enough to be considered valid and,
therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive,
think and feel in relation to these problems.”
Of course none of
these general definitions really get at the components that make up a
culture. We often describe culture as a ‘cloth’ composed of many threads –
myriad, complex interplays between many, often unnoticeable, patterns of…
prevailing mental models, values, beliefs and tacit assumptions held
collectively that often operate unconsciously and define in a basic
‘taken for granted’ way, how we see the organisation, how we see
ourselves and how we see each other.
Behaving: the accepted behavioural rules resident in a
culture that govern the way people interact. These rules aren’t
usually explicitly stated but they’re implicitly, and again,
unconsciously followed anyway.
the stories, myths, legends, creeds, customs, rituals that store
meaning, create cultural identity, continually reinforce the
prevailing culture and deflect efforts to change it.
Feelings: the stream of underlying emotions people
most commonly experience, display, act out or hide that flow through
a culture, effecting how we treat each other, how we behave, how we
think and how satisfied, productive and happy we are at work.
The nature and quality of conversations we have that include how
open we are, how we handle disagreements, what topics can be
discussed and which are ‘undiscussable’.
Leadership: The style of
leaders, how this resonates with people and how their words and
actions are perceived by others.
The way people engage with and respond to change in their external
environment; how reactive or pro-active and how rigid or adaptive
the organisation is, in navigating political, environment, social,
and ‘futures’ contexts.
cultural components provides some markers to measure culture against, but
keep in mind it’s overly-simplistic. Taken too literally, a
components-approach can trick us into:
Thinking we can
grasp culture by breaking it down into basic elements or
culture can be easily controlled by simply adjusting or replacing parts
Culture isn’t a
machine you can just ‘fix’ or adjust. There isn’t a culture control dial
somewhere in your organisation to twiddle. While we all act to generate,
preserve, influence or change it, culture is an ephemeral entity that
isn’t inside anyone's particular sphere of control.
So what’s the
bottom-line on change and culture? As long as you get most of the same
outcomes, on balance it’s easier to change your change to suit the culture
if you can, rather than change the culture to suit your change. Often
though, culture itself is the major block to change success or survival so
you have to tackle it.
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