Company Culture: Changing the Unchangeable

We all know the feeling – the one you get when your company announces a change they want to make in how things are done. It could be a relatively small change, or a large, sweeping change; it really doesn’t matter. All you know is that it has been tried before and it will be tried again – and things will always go back to the way they have always been. It always seems to come down to culture. As Katzenback, Steffen and Kronley put it in Cultural Change that Sticks, “a strategy that is at odds with a company’s culture is doomed. Culture trumps strategy every time”.  So, how do you change a company’s culture?

There is no one foolproof strategy to change culture, it will ultimately depend on influencing factors such as the age of the company, the number of employees, as well as the types of behaviors you are trying to change. The Wharton School of Executive Education stresses in Culture as Culprit: Four Steps to Effective Change, that relying on managers to change behaviors, especially ones linked to values and beliefs, doesn’t work. Short term programs are fun and can lift spirits, but in the long terms people will fall back (or be pulled back) into old behaviors.

There are some steps that you can take, however, to begin changing culture in a more effective way.

Recognize and Evaluate the Existing Culture

We know our own company’s culture, right? We live and breathe it every day. Michael Hyatt points out in the article How Do You Change Organizational Culture that culture is largely invisible to the people who are inside of it. We don’t even think about it until we come across something that runs against it, because it will feel strange and uncomfortable. Hyatt explains that you need to begin by simply noticing the culture’s characteristics. How do people talk? What do they value?

Proceed from here by categorizing the behaviors, values and attitudes that should stay, and those that need to go. What is missing altogether?

Reinforce the Good Aspects

While most cultural aspects are well entrenched in a company, this is not always a bad thing. There will always be aspects that are positive. Katzenback, Steffen and Kronley explain in Cultural Change that Sticks that it pays to focus on what behaviors, values, and attitudes people are getting right and should be continued. Since people are living in the culture, they may not be aware that the company strongly values commitment to customers, or that pride in the company’s history is a value worth noting. Bring these things to people’s attention, and continue to praise the attitudes and behaviors that the company wants to hold on to. Make reinforcing these aspects of the current culture a part of everyday life and watch them grow.

Focus on a Few Critical Shifts

Critical is the key word here. You can’t start with everything at once. Also important to consider is that only changes that are widely agreed upon and respected will be emulated by people. When a few key aspects are focused on heavily, people will find new ways to reinforce them. When ideas start from the top, they have a tendency to stop there. When ideas are embraced at the bottom level – that is where they gain traction.

While culture may seem like an unstoppable force in a company’s day to day activities, it does not have to be unchangeable. The key to changing culture is to create the proverbial “ripple” in the water, rather than going for the tidal wave. Start small and find the people throughout the company who can help the ideas catch on. Once they do, keep reinforcing them and you will see the culture begin to shift.