Is Culture Change Really the Answer?

As someone with Change Management in her title I’ve been asked time and time again, “Can you help us change the office culture?” Every time it’s asked I immediately think, “Is culture change the best and only solution to our problems?”

In the hopes that it helps others struggling with the same dilemma, I’m sharing the following questions that I have used to navigate conversations about culture change.

What are we trying to achieve?

Begin by identifying your objectives by thinking about the specific outcomes you hope to achieve. Consider the end of your work – How will you know you’ve succeeded? How will you achieve that success? Who will be involved in ensuring success?

A vision or high-level goal is an important component of a project. However, if you are simply trying to get on the same page with your team about what you want to achieve, start with your objectives. Through the objectives, you should clearly state what will be accomplished, by whom and by when.

Defining the objectives may illustrate that changing a process or procedure would target the real problem concerning your team. Generally, after we’ve spent time discussing our objectives we’re much more focused on an operational change, rather than on an overhaul of the shared values and beliefs that influence how people behave at work (i.e., the culture).

Keep in mind: it’s often easier to begin your planning at the tactical, objectives level rather than at the visionary level. This is particularly true when you’re working with multiple people with a variety of opinions, as everyone may have distinct objectives in mind.

Is there already an effort underway that can help us achieve our objectives?

Likely, your organization is filled with creative, thoughtful people. Think about how to maximize their current work rather than finding new solutions. If you cultivate efforts that are already making an impact you just may engage staff in a way that drives the cultural change you seek.

You may hear something like, performance management isn’t a big part of our culture, therefore staff are under-performing. What you may not know is that some supervisors are effectively managing to performance standards, but the practice needs to be applied more broadly to really make a splash. If you can leverage something that’s working, do it.  As they say, don’t reinvent the wheel.

One way to explore and build on what’s going well within your organization is to utilize the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) method that focuses on accelerating successful organizational practices or behaviors. If you were to deploy the method, instead of asking: “What are supervisors doing wrong?” you might ask: “In what ways are supervisors effectively managing performance and how can we do more of it?”

If people knew more, would they behave differently?

Far too often we conclude that we need to transform the culture in order to influence staff’s behavior. In reality, we haven’t conveyed expectations clearly or reinforced the behavior we want to see.

Many organizational challenges stem from lack of awareness. This basically means that communication has not been frequent or effective enough to impact the intended audience. And this is our perpetual communication challenge.

Consider what your audience has been told, how and by whom. Think about how that messaging was reinforced by management, if at all. You may discover that what you really need is a strategic plan that hinges on organizational leaders clearly explaining the changes they want to see.

Define culture change

Behavioral experts describe culture as a shared value system to which people feel personally connected.  It’s quite an endeavor to impact what people value. Changing policies or procedures is usually a more attainable goal.

Now, I’m not saying that smaller changes can’t influence a broader culture change. However, Edgar Schein, a former MIT professor and organizational culture thought leader, notes that behaviors, and the belief systems that drive them, must become threaded into the organizational fabric in order make an impact on culture. This doesn’t happen by management ordering a procedural change – it’s much more than that.

I encourage anyone who has been caught in can-you-change-the-culture crossfire to explore Edgar Schein’s work. Brushing up on your understanding on how organizational culture is formed and what it really means can help you guide important conversations about culture change.

To get started, check out the interview with Edgar Schein posted on CultureUniversity.com.

Emily Yahr is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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