Every business has a culture; that is, how the people within the organization behave. Their collective behavior reflects the values of the company, its common vision, beliefs, norms, language and systems. For newcomers, they must become part of the culture—or function sub-optimally as they become isolated from others who fit that culture.
Over time, company cultures tend to gain a life of their own; they drift, more or less unguided, to what they are today. And, often, business leaders come to the conclusion that they are dissatisfied with their current culture. The critical question becomes how to make improvements to that culture. The following are five proven steps for improving corporate culture.
STEP ONE: Clearly define the culture you have in terms of both its strengths and weaknesses. While it is easy to recognize that all businesses have a culture, it is often difficult to clearly define the culture of one’s company—and that is a problem. Start with the behaviors you observe and link them to the values of the organization. Be sure that behaviors that are dysfunctional (they don’t fit with the core beliefs of the company) are clearly described and understood.
STEP TWO: Clearly define the culture you want. Define the behaviors you would like to see in terms of those that are positive and should be retained, and those that will replace negative actions.
STEP THREE: Collaborate with your key stakeholders in defining the desired culture. Be sure to discuss the ramifications of the change. How will employees react? Is turnover likely to result? What unintended consequences might surprise us? Be sure to recognize that culture change requires a compelling vision of the new, improved culture and an unbreakable commitment from key stakeholders to implement it. Don’t move to implement such improvements without both of these!
STEP FOUR: Communicate clearly and thoroughly with all employees regarding the specifics of the improved culture. Ask for and answer any questions they have regarding the change. Make sure that thorough communication includes the expected benefits of the change, and the ramifications of individual or collective failure to implement. In other words, make sure everyone knows that compliance is expected!
STEP FIVE: Sustain the new culture. Leaders must “walk their talk” in being the prime examples of the new culture. They should also be highly attuned to recognizing and complimenting the new behaviors as they observe them. In this regard, they also should seek feedback as to the perceived benefits or concerns employees express about those behaviors. Ultimately, appropriate sustaining actions will help lead to full implementation and adoption of the new culture.
Do these steps work? When implemented completely, our experience is that they are virtually 100% percent effective. That said, the most critical step is the fifth one. Leader-driven culture change will not happen if leaders fail to lead—and their sustaining actions often are needed over the long haul. The unguided drift mentioned above typically occurs over a number of years; don’t expect to improve your culture overnight!