Guiding Principles for Building a Successful Organisational Culture
The culture of an organisation depicts its basic personality with how its people work and interact. However, organisational culture is a complex and elusive entity which evolves in the midst of leadership, strategy and other circumstances. In other words, culture may be defined as a self-sustaining behavioural pattern that decides how things are done. Culture is not something that can be easily copied. It comprises repetitive habits, emotional responses, and instinctive habits. Organisational cultures have a trait of slowly evolving and continuously recalibrating. The way in which the people of an organisation go about their business is shaped and reflected by what its people think, feel, and believe. The formal efforts towards changing an organisation’s culture have seldom managed to figure out what motivates the people of an organisation. When strongly worded memos are communicated, people continue to go about their ways and function according to the habits which they are comfortable and familiar with.
However, this should not deter leaders from trying to improve and work on building a robust organisational culture. They need to change their perspective. When an entire machine cannot be replaced, they need to work towards realigning some of the more useful parts. Similarly, when changing behaviour and culture, leaders need to organisations some of the emotional forces within the present culture differently.
The alignment of corporate culture is impacted by the following three dimensions:
- Symbolic reminders comprising of artefacts which are completely visible
- Keystone behaviours of recurring acts which tend to trigger other behaviours of both visible and invisible kinds
- Mindset, comprising of beliefs and attitudes which are widely shared but for the most part invisible
Out of these three dimensions, behaviours are the most significant and powerful factors which drive real change. Hence if an organisation works towards changing some of the most critical behaviours, mindsets will automatically follow. With time, altered habits and behavioural patterns are successful in producing better results. An organisation’s culture is made up of several reservoirs of emotional influence and energy. When strategic priorities and cultural forces are in sync with one another, organisations can draw energy from the way its people feel. This also helps in accelerating an organisation’s movement to gain a competitive edge or to even regain certain advantages once lost.
Research suggests organisations which use informal emotional approaches to influence the behaviour of its people are more likely to experience a change that lasts. Companies which used a few of these specific cultural catalysts reported achieving a marked improvement in the emotional commitment of its people and in organisational pride.
While there is no set formula, equation, or algorithm that will guarantee results if an organisation adopts the following principles it will be able to deploy and improve its culture and increase the odds of operational and financial success.
Guiding Principles of Organisational Culture Development
- Align with your organisation’s present cultural situations. Certain cultures which are deeply embedded cannot be replaced or uprooted with simple upgrades or by carrying out major overhaul efforts. The existing culture of your organisation cannot be instantly swapped for a new one. No culture is entirely all good or all bad. To work with an organisation’s culture in an effective manner, you need to understand it, figure out which are the dominant and consistent traits. You should also determine under what type of conditions are these traits like to prove to be of help or may act as a hindrance. In other words, even cultural traits have a yin and a yang side to it.
- Link behaviours to business objectives. When people discuss motivations, values, and feelings, the conversation may often lead to distractions. People tend to walk away from a culture when the message is unrelated to day to day work. To avoid this kind of disconnect, you need to offer well defined and tangible examples of how interventions in the culture zone can lead to an improved financial outcome and enhanced performance. Select behaviours which specifically target measurable business improvement performance.
- Change behaviour and mindsets will follow. Just as night follows day, it’s a common opinion that behavioural change is followed by mental shifts amongst people. That is the reason why organisations are often seen to try and change the mindsets of its employees by communicating the values and presenting them in glossy brochures. It helps, but moulding an organisational culture requires much more than merely saying it. If you try to change an organisation’s culture just via training, top-down messaging, and development programs, it seldom helps in changing the behaviour or beliefs of its people. Research suggests that people are more inclined towards acting their way into believing instead of merely thinking their way into acting. An excellent place to start is to bring about changes in the behaviours of people. These changes in the key behaviours are actionable, tangible, observable, repeatable, and measurable. Good examples of behaviour changes include empowerment, interpersonal relations, and collaboration. Empowerment changes entail reducing the number of approvals that are required to make decisions. Interpersonal changes entail mutually devising practices which help in raising contentious grievances or issues. Collaboration changes entail setting up simpler ways to convene joint projects.
- Focus on critical behaviours. As an organisation, you need to be quite selective regarding selecting behaviours. Select a small number of critical behaviours that are likely to have a maximum impact once put into practice. Identify a few things which people do across the organisation which positively impact the business performance. Ensure that these set of behaviours are aligned with the organisation’s overall strategy. The organisation also needs to check how its people feel about doing these things so that it can tap into the employee’s emotional commitment. The next stage should be to translate these critical behaviours into simple and practical steps which can be adopted on a day to day basis. Lastly, you need to be smart in selecting your beachhead groups of employees who will project these behaviours. Some of the employees may respond strongly towards these new set of behaviours while there may be others who are likely to implement and spread them.
- Deploy genuine but informal leaders. People should not get confused with authority and leadership. Leadership is considered to be a natural attribute, which is exercised and displayed in an informal manner and it is independent of any kind of title or position in the organizational chart. Authentic informal leaders are found in every organisation, but they are not recognised and are often underused and overlooked when it comes to driving an organisation’s culture. Such leaders can be identified through surveys, interviews and utilising tools such as organisational network analysis. Once these leaders are identified, they can become powerful allies who can influence the behaviour of other employees by setting examples. When companies map out their organisations, they are able to identify leaders who project core leadership strengths. Organisations tend to push the organisational culture into silos of human resource professionals. Keep in mind that formal leaders are equally critical towards championing and safeguarding desired behaviours, reinforcing cultural alignment, and energising the personal feelings of employees. If employees detect a disconnect between the projected culture and the one that leaders follow, they are likely to disengage quickly from the propagated culture and simply mimic the behaviour that their senior leaders are projecting. The formal leaders need to demonstrate the change that they wish to see. Here as well, select only a handful of the right kind of leaders to be on board in order to kick-start the process of demonstrating the change.
- Demonstrate the impact of culture change quickly. When you fail to share the result of efforts and initiatives for several months, people are likely to disengage and become cynical. That’s why it’s important to display the impact of efforts on the business as quickly as possible. One of the most effective ways of doing it is to have performance pilots in place for high profile demonstration projects. Pilot projects involve low-risk efforts which introduce certain behaviours which can be evaluated and assessed.
- Employ cross organisational communication methods. This is to ensure your message spreads across various departments and functions virally, top down and bottom up. One such powerful method to spread ideas is via social media either through LinkedIn posts, Facebook, and Tweets from genuine informal leaders. Social media is one of the most effective media these days to share news and information, as well as critical behaviours. It is a general trend that people are usually more receptive to changes when such changes are recommended by colleagues, friends, and other associates. Just as it is an art to make content go viral, it is an art to make behaviours go viral as well. When behaviours go viral, the leaders of the organisation see an increased performance as well as recognition of peers and leadership.
- Align the new cultural direction with the existing way of doing business. In other words, you need to align behaviours with programmatic efforts. The cultural interventions and informal mechanisms must integrate and complement with the other common formal components of the organisation. When an organisation provides a structure in which people work through analytics, organisation design, lean process improvement, and human resources, it promotes a logical level of motivation for the employees. Similarly, informal organisations encourage the emotional commitment of employees which characterises outstanding performance.
- Actively manage the cultural situation over time. Organisations which have been highly successful in working with culture are known as culture rockstars. They are seen to proactively monitor, manage, care for, and update the cultural forces of their respective organisations. When the strategic and operating priorities of an organisation are aligned, the culture of an organisation can provide hidden sources of motivation and energy which can accelerate changes much faster than formal programs and processes. While your organisation may have a highly effective culture today, it may not be relevant or good enough tomorrow. While an organisation’s cultural situation may be multi-dimensional, challenging, or often even difficult to deal with, it still requires a robust set of emotional resources.
The culture of an organisation can be compared to natural forces such as tides and wind. These elements of nature are always there in the background, but they are sometimes obvious, and sometimes unnoticed. These forces of nature cannot be fundamentally altered or tamed. However, if you respect them and understand how to make the most of them, they can be an excellent source of energy and assist in a compelling manner.
Do not plan for overnight results. Expect an evolution rather than revolution. One of the challenges of changing the culture of an organisation is that the change is gradual, rather sometimes too slow for leaders who face fast-paced, disruptive competitors. The good news, on the other hand, is that if you approach culture intelligently and with respect, you can utilise it to accelerate your competitive advantage.