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Why is it so difficult to change your organisation’s culture?

People & Culture Change 04th March 2020
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It’s a fact. Far too many culture change programmes struggle to deliver the desired results.

Even the best-laid plans, it seems, encounter culture change resistance. So, how do you overcome it? Talking and working with a range of organisations has given us an insight into the most commonly made mistakes. If you want to avoid them, it pays to ask yourself some serious questions.

Can you define your existing culture?

Changing a culture demands a clear-eyed view of what’s already there. The only effective way of realising your goals and delivering your purpose as an organisation is to build on the positives in your current culture and tackle the kind of behaviour that could stand in your way.

If done at all, the attempt to understand the existing culture often stops at interviews and discussion among the most senior leaders. The result is a partial and rarefied idea of what goes on across an organisation. In an effort to be more inclusive, there may be a company-wide listening exercise or survey, but can this really unearth the deeper attitudes, assumptions and beliefs that determine a company’s culture? It’s unlikely when people may not be fully aware of the those often-hidden factors and can be less than frank in their responses.

From an incomplete analysis, leaders may generate a set of aspirational values and a programme for cultural and behavioural change but they’re simply not rooted in the underlying reality.

Do you have a compelling ‘why’?

Culture is an essential contributor to business performance. Any decision to change it must be grounded in an organisation’s purpose, ambitions and strategic priorities. You are taking on a significant, long term project, not a cosmetic exercise – a major restoration programme not a lick of paint to conceal structural problems.

The decision can be extremely challenging – intellectually and emotionally. Any organisation is massively invested in the way it already does things. It’s tempting to settle for grandiose, sweeping statements about the benefits of change, rather than asking the difficult and critical questions.

Any decision must encompass all the implications of making, or not making, any proposed changes. That means getting involved at the coalface to understand and articulate the practical benefits of a different culture and the downsides of ‘business as usual’.

Do you understand what culture change involves?

Some people have a nebulous idea of culture change or see it as an exercise in ‘window dressing’. In reality, it’s a practical programme to change behaviour at every level. At its core, it’s about identifying your organisational habits, then encouraging those that are useful and weaning yourself off those that are less than helpful. Culture ‘hot spots’ give strong clues as to what needs attention. These are where the culture is most ‘felt’ in the way, for example, team meetings are run or decisions made.

Once you know what has to change, you can implement mechanisms to help embed new habits and ensure they become more consistent and widespread. Habits need to be supported, reinforced, encouraged, rewarded, repeated, role modelled and practised until they become second nature, and a normal part of your culture.

Our personal experience of changing habits – not having a drink after work, taking up running, ignoring phones at mealtimes – give some idea of what it takes to shift an organisation’s cultural norms. It takes effort and commitment, but it can be done.

It’s vital to stay focussed and not give up too soon.

Some organisations put huge effort and resources into their culture change programme but stop at the final hurdle. They invest in carrying out a diagnosis and defining a remedy. They may even use an outside consultant to conduct an analysis and produce a culture change plan. Then, when it comes to implementing it, the really hard bit, there’s a failure of will. And nothing fundamentally changes.

Are you fixated on the ‘what’ and forgetting the ‘how’?

The execution of any culture change programme has to be congruent with the ways of behaving and working to which it aspires.

If you want to be a company that’s collaborative, change your culture in a collaborative manner. If you aspire to be an organisation in which responsibility is shared, don’t impose your new culture by diktat.

Failure to reflect the desired behaviours in how the change is implemented simply reinforces the existing ‘stuck’ culture and suggests a lack of commitment. It’s also a wasted opportunity to start practising what you preach.

Are your leaders committed and supported?

Culture change affects everyone in an organisation at every level, including the leadership.

It’s especially important that leaders recognise the need to change and act accordingly. The signals they send – consciously or unconsciously – set an organisation’s tone and guide its behaviour and can support or undermine any culture change programme. If they carry on in the old ways, little will change. If they claim, ‘we are all in this together’, then fail to play their part, it can prompt cynicism, disenchantment, and resistance.

Leaders need to understand their impact. That’s not simply an exercise in self-examination. They have to consider how others see their behaviour and take on board facts they might prefer not to acknowledge. They may have to make changes that feel uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Being that honest can be difficult and leaders deserve support and encouragement, rather than being seen as scapegoats for whatever is not working and expected to fix it. Of course, they are responsible for successful culture change but they are not alone. Only when everyone in an organisation is committed to making the desired changes happen, will you see genuine and lasting progress.

Find out more

Culture change is challenging and making it work takes effort, careful thought and repeated practice. At Rubica, our aim is to equip leaders and managers with the essential tools and expertise they need and proven, easy to apply methodologies they can follow. If your organisational culture needs a change, get in touch or download our guide ‘How to change a workplace culture’.

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