Three Steps to Changing Company Culture

It can seem so overwhelming to think about changing your company’s culture. And in truth, more often than not, “how we do things here” is unconscious and unexamined in organizations globally. Despite the fact that there is more than 30 years of research and writing on the topic of organizational culture, most organizations have only a vague understanding of what theirs is, and even less often, exactly how they can make it better.

Historically, culture was one of those “soft” areas that companies deemed irrelevant in the context of making profit for shareholders or meeting mission. But new measures and data show that healthy cultures correlate strongly with other important metrics. For example, LRN’s research indicates that 93% of employees at values-based companies with high levels of trust observe financial performance greater than their competitors, and only 48% of those at low trust organizations observe the same.*

There are three essential steps to changing company culture:

  1. Look at it

Culture evolves (often starting with the founders) from the beliefs, values, and assumption that are held by employees who work there. These beliefs, values and assumptions drive behavior. What we often see (above the waterline) are symbols, rituals, actions, and behaviors reflecting how a company rolls. For example, whenever I visit Les Schwab Tires I notice how fast they move to serve me, and how they always fix flats for no charge. Leadership teams who take the time to either measure their culture with a valid assessment tool asking employees how they do things, or otherwise openly discussing the beliefs, values, and assumptions that drive behavior in their organization, are able to realistically assess the often invisible and ignored dimensions of culture that matter.

By looking at culture, a company’s natural assets become visible, and their cultural weaknesses become obvious. For example, a manufacturing company I’ve been working with recently measured their culture to discover that their ability to tend to and focus on customers is very high, reflecting a belief that customers are the most important thing, but their scores in team orientation were very low, reflecting that people feel disconnected from one another at work, which drives heroic individual effort, not collaboration.

  1. Talk about it

Whether you measure or simply try to name your culture, it is important to engage each and every employee about what they feel and notice about the culture you have discovered. Since culture grows due to the beliefs and assumptions of employees, discussion about culture at all levels helps an organization more specifically connect the dots between what they do today and how they want to be tomorrow. Dissonance between espoused beliefs/values and those in practice becomes a lever for potent change. It is essential that all employees be engaged in these conversations, rather than just the team at the top, as change will require all employees to begin to think differently in order to act differently.

  1. Take focused action to change

Interestingly, most companies we work with want to start here. “What can we do to change our culture?” We often slow them down by suggesting that before they change, they need to understand. One Moementum client, Tech Soft 3D, which has engaged in a culture change effort for the past 5 years, recently celebrated historically high results when they surveyed employees. In discussing what they learned, they were able to connect improvement to specific actions they have deliberately chosen:

  • “We meet differently now, and talk often and well about the values and the vision.”
  • “We have implemented KPI’s that allows us to measure the same thing over time.”
  • “We restructured our teams to be more purposeful in all of our global locations. People feel connected to one another.”

We often suggest that organizations pick 1-3 things to change at a time to make a difference in their culture. Focus allows all employees to practice new ways of doing things, relative to shifting beliefs, which results in actual cultural improvement

This week I was with a group of leaders from a large non-profit who are actively seeking to create a less fearful culture. They have learned that people hesitate to speak up and challenge ideas due to historically low trust. In working to build their new leadership team, they have successfully been able to target specific ways to walk their talk in creating vulnerability-based trust at all levels where people can engage in ideological debate that is healthy and constructive, therefore elevating performance and job satisfaction. This team bravely examined their culture today, talked to all employees about their specific ideas and hopes, and are now poised and ready to take action.

Company culture matters, and can concretely be noticed, named, examined and changed.

The benefits are huge. Doug Claffey, of Workplace Dynamics, created a virtual portfolio of 42 Top Workplaces and discovered that they outperform the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. Claffey reported being surprised to find that financial performance extends far beyond the classic measures of engagement (pay, benefits, manager, training, and work life balance) and is driven by “having a healthy organization, with clear direction, great execution, and a sense of connection with employees.**”

What stops you from examining your company’s culture as a strategy for improvement?

Jim Morris