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Changing a culture for future success (top tips)

People & Culture Change 23rd July 2019

Workplace culture is the one vital ingredient that can support a business in both surviving and thriving in even the most testing of times. Yet its importance is often underestimated until it hampers or (worse still) damages business progress.

This post aims to share 6 insights on how to change a workplace culture so it can best support a business in fulfilling its strategic potential.

Insight 1: Workplace culture myths

When it comes to workplace culture, many share the belief that ‘culture is something that’s given to me and it’s up to me to choose if, and how, I respond to it.’ The truth however couldn’t be more different.

Workplace culture, by definition, is created by all of us. It’s the way we get on together to get work done. Therefore, no one who’s contributing can stand outside it or prescribe it to another.

This doesn’t mean a workplace culture can’t be diagnosed or changed. Culture is always shifting and can be redirected towards a more beneficial path for a business. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that true change only comes when we’re willing to work deep below the surface to reach the most basic underlying assumptions about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we do’.

To do this, it is important to be mindful and not get distracted. Artefacts like perks or communication initiatives won’t change the fundamentals of a workplace culture. The key is working together to change minds.

Insight 2: Changing a workplace culture starts with a compelling why

Storytelling can powerfully inspire change. A strong narrative can paint a picture of what the future could be, offers a glimpse of what’s on offer, and highlights what we may lose out on if change doesn’t happen.

Changing a workplace culture should be born out of strategic need. However, the reasons for changing it should articulated in a way that reaches people on an emotional level too. Here the trick is to think about the deep underlying beliefs that currently govern the business and consider how things would be different if these were tweaked in a more positive direction.

For example: how could becoming more agile, innovative or accountable help drive the business strategy and support our deeply held wish to grow a challenging career within a thriving company?

Insight 3: The ‘how’ of a workplace culture change

Once the ‘why’ (i.e. why you need to change) has been established, get specific on the ‘how’ by asking what demonstrable behaviours will help trigger the mindset required and give birth to a new belief system.

To start this process, create a long list of desirable behaviours. Then ruthlessly prioritise them into the one or two things that would make the biggest difference right now. Make sure to keep these things practical, and keep an eye out for quick wins too e.g. what one thing could be done differently tomorrow?

These priorities should not only be practical, but also measurable, so be clear on the desired outcome of changing a workplace culture too. This has two major benefits:

  1. It helps people think about culture within the context of business and people performance.
  2. It keeps people’s eye on the future – showing them that by operating differently something new and better can be built together.

Insight 4: Live the workplace culture you are seeking

Encourage key individuals or a project team to actively demonstrate the workplace culture that is being sought. This has two key benefits:

  1. It’ll give first-hand experience of what is being created – giving invaluable insight into which areas are working and which need more attention.
  2. Trying out new behaviours is a great way for others to experience something positively different and it naturally creates change agents too. It may feel clumsy and clunky at first, but just explain the intent – sharing vulnerability may give others the nudge to give it a go.

Insight 5: Embrace the positive beliefs that exist in your workplace culture

There will be places within the business where the cultural vision is already alive and well. These are what Dan and Chip Heath call bright spots – glimmers of greatness where the organisation is already the best example of itself.

Find and study these bright spots – it will reveal insights that can be used or replicated in other areas and strengthen the business from team to team.

Bright spots can also be found on an individual level. We call these people beacons because they are natural role models that act as a guiding light to show others the way. Look to connect beacons together – it will amplify their influence and spread it throughout the organisation.

Insight 6: Leaders can help turn cultural hot spots into bright spots

Whenever a leader communicates their beliefs or role models’ certain behaviours they send powerful cultural signals into the business, subconsciously drawing everyone’s attention towards what’s important and how tasks ‘should’ be tackled.

Leadership role modelling has a particular impact in cultural hotspots like planning meetings and commercial reviews. These are invaluable opportunities for leaders to recognise and tweak the script associated to the change being sought when it comes to changing a workplace culture.

For example: consider the impact a notoriously detail driven leader would have if rather than demanding to inspect everything before sign off, publicly told their reports to ‘Send it out when you’re happy with it, I trust you.’

Summary

To make meaningful inroads in changing a workplace culture, focus first on the underlying beliefs that support a positive mindset and that will create value. Only then should you move onto identifying the behaviours that will trigger these beliefs. To do this, look to find and connect people and places where positive behaviours are commonplace. This offers an invaluable way to spread influence both practically and measurably throughout the business