The perfect culture in an organisation is a much sought-after utopia – a land of paradise where everything is as it should be, and gets us the results we want.
Culture change is fraught with complexity, unpredictably and unknowns, because it’s all about people. Today’s large organisations contain tens of thousands of people, and not one is the same, so to apply one process consistently and successfully is impossible. Each employee is unique, with their own set of experiences and perceptions. They also exhibit behaviours that reflect that uniqueness and the environment in which they find themselves – and not necessarily lined up with their almost always good intentions.
Simply speaking, people are not their behaviours. Add cultural and language differences into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a cocktail of misunderstandings and unpredictability. Many organisations have the management of risk as part of their DNA, but what about the emotional risk inherent in the vast layers of diversity that exists among our employee populations? All this risk and unpredictably leads to inertia rather than change, and sometimes even change in the opposite direction to that intended.
So, what are the 3 great myths of culture change, because if we can bust them, and focus on the reality, then we can start to make incremental improvements and sustain them, and even make inroads into performance?
Myth no. 1 – It’s all about the behaviours
Many good culture change programs focus on the behaviours required of our people – if we can get everyone behaving in a certain way, then this will lead us to culture change, and the culture we want. This is true, but often the focus is so firmly on the behaviours, that it becomes all about the behaviours, and to the detriment of what’s behind them. If we focus on the behaviours, by making clear what we want, rewarding these behaviours and punishing non-compliance, and even changing the environment if necessary to make the required behaviour easier to practise, we will quickly achieve the behaviours we want, but the story doesn’t end here. In the long-term, the only thing that drives behaviours is perception and motivation, so this is where we need to focus. How do we ensure our employees have the right perceptions, and are motivated to achieve the change we want?
Myth no. 2 – It’s all about the employees
It is often thought that if we focus on the employees, and get them to behave the way we want, then we will have the culture change, and the culture that we need. It’s true that ultimately its our employees who will drive the change we want to see, and change driven from the bottom up achieves empowerment and ownership. When we focus purely on employees, and forget the bigger picture, then we may get some change, but that groundswell will only get so far. If it isn’t supported from the top, and by the system, then the tidal waves of change will soon become small breakers that peter out before they get to the shore. So, culture change is about the employees, but it’s not all about the employees – culture change will only happen if is driven from and demonstrated by senior management, and in a system that makes the required change easy and acceptable to enact.
Myth no. 3 – It’s a quick fix!
When culture change starts to see some quick wins on performance, it is easy to assume that you have a recipe for success, but myth no. 3 is that culture change is a quick fix. Edouard Herriot famously said that culture is what remains when one has forgotten everything, which suggests that it is far more permanent than we might think. Culture is a long-term endeavour, and takes a lot of hard work to build. Three key elements of culture are the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of those that form part of it, and whilst behaviours can be changed quickly with the right rewards and supervision, employees will quickly revert to the easiest and most satisfying behaviours if the attitudes and beliefs that lie behind those behaviours are not aligned. And even when attitudes, beliefs and behaviours are all aligned, it’s a constant endeavour to keep them there for everyone, particularly with a transient and/or changing workforce. The work to change culture is therefore as permanent as the culture itself.
If you are looking to change culture, then, busting these 3 myths – in your own head and that of all those involved – is a really good way to start. Paradise is often felt to be unattainable or only fleeting, but with culture change, paradise can be a reality – provided we remember that it’s a journey not a destination.