How to change the culture in your organisation

organisational culture

Organisational culture is the sum of what you and the people you work with feel, believe, and do, and the stories you all share about your organisation.

Culture is an invisible but powerful force that influences the behaviour of the members of your group.

A great guru once said culture eats strategy for breakfast.

What that means: it’s been shown time and again that a happy and engaged team are more loyal, more resilient, and more efficient, they perform better and are more likely to come up with great new strategies… whereas poor culture and dysfunctional teams destroy them.

So the first tool I want to tell you about, which is the underlying theory to everything we do, is the Evolving Culture Model.

The Evolving Culture Model

The Evolving Culture Model says: if you want to change your culture, the first thing you need to do is understand what it’s like now. And then you need to be able to articulate what the future’s going to look like.

Moving from how it is now to how you’d like it to be, is not a linear process. It’s iterative. It evolves.

As a leader the levers you have to move this process forward are:

  • What you say
  • What you do (more than what you say)
  • The systems and processes in the organisation
  • Symbols (like who gets the best office, or access to the store cupboard)

And to get the levers working well, you have to:

  • Understand what the existing narratives are ie what are the feelings, beliefs, and behaviours that define the current culture
  • Understand and work on how you are received when you speak and act
  • Make the right impact going forward

You need to understand the existing narratives because the behaviours in an organisation are transmitted and maintained through the stories that people have.

(One way of finding this out would be to use our tools for understanding culture.)

You also need to get better at understanding how you’re received, ie what people hear when you speak – because people probably don’t hear the things that you think they do.

And you need to get better at predicting what people hear too… because if you become more aware of that, your predictions become more accurate, and then you can move forward in a more deliberate way.

This is the Evolving Culture Model, as shown to me by Peter Cooper of Advanced Dynamics:

Evolving Culture Model

The point of the model is:

  • You need to understand where people are at before you open your mouth
  • You need to make a prediction (you will get better at this) about how people will receive what you say and do
  • You need to reflect on whether you were right or not
  • Your behaviours need to back up what you’re saying

“You need to understand where people are at before you open your mouth”

Let me illustrate with a story.

There’s an organisation we worked with, whose previous leader made a series of decisions that didn’t work out well.

This person launched a whole set of new initiatives, which were great, but turned out to be unsustainable.

He also implemented a massive refocus of their products, which left people feeling confused – the people working in the organisation and their customers didn’t feel any connection with them.

Sales dropped away… the organisation ran out of money… morale was very low… and then the leader left.

There had been no process for oversight, and the leader basically crashed the plane.

The stories in the organisation are of just. How. Bad. It. Was.

Lots of people left, but the ones who stayed were the hard-core true believers.

They stayed but they held onto the stories of the bad times, that continued to shape them long after they were ancient history. They also had some problems with their internal processes, which became the scapegoat for all their ills.

An interesting belief because it was never the whole truth. Although it did become a convenient excuse for not fixing other things that really needed attention.

What that story and these beliefs left them with, is a desire to make sure everything is correct and to be able to cover their backs. All the risk-taking has gone. All the innovation has gone.

And whilst the staff believe the organisation is doing good work, deep down they don’t believe they can deliver it.

This is all about beliefs.

We asked the people most responsible for shaping the culture (the leaders) to pay much more attention to what they’re saying to their teams and how that might be received, and what they do and how they model it, and to look at the symbols that they allow to persist.

Because then, the beliefs and the stories can change.

Here’s another story from a different organisation.

At a public organisation we know of, everyone was given a keycard to get in and out of their building and other sites around the city.

The keycards could get you into most places, but the one place it couldn’t get you into unless you had specific access, was the top floor where the senior execs were based.

At the top floor, you had to knock and wait for permission to enter. The reason given for this was for confidentiality, but there was nothing on that floor that was any more confidential than in any other parts of the building.

It was a really just a symbolic boundary that didn’t make any practical sense.

At the same time, the Chief Exec had a parking space right by the main entrance. The only named parking space in the whole organisation.

That’s a small thing but it says something about how that CEO was prepared to gift themselves special treatment in a very un-egalitarian way. It carried symbolic value, and it was held against them at a time of big business change when other people had to endure cuts.

So here’s a question: what is the culture like in your organisation, and what are the stories, the behaviours and symbols that define it? How do the systems and processes affect it? How does it need to change, and what can you do, using the above levers to get you there?

Get in touch here if you’d like to have a chat and find out more.

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