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Corporate culture changes only when people change

4 min read


I’m coaching a senior leader through his company’s culture change. He recently told me, “Man, this culture management is hard work!” We both laughed — and agreed.

It takes time and energy to tend, monitor, and nurture a safe, inspiring work environment in your organization’s divisions and teams.

Safe, inspiring work environments do not happen by chance. Human foibles and temptations, driven by greed and power, can make companies lousy places to work. Only when leaders proactively manage productivity and citizenship do organizations enjoy their desired high performance, values-aligned culture.

Many senior leaders believe that they only have to describe desired outcomes and people will immediately align to them. I call that “managing by announcements.” Leaders state lofty performance expectations or increased quality targets or “values we’ll live by from this day forward” without any explanation of how the organization will make those changes. Without the “hows” and demonstrated senior leader commitment, these targets fall by the wayside quickly.

Think of the last organizational initiative introduced in your company. Did senior leaders “manage by announcements” or state the outcome and how to accomplish it, or did they do something in between? Have those outcomes gained traction?

The concept of perfection exists in our workplaces. This idea of perfection — from the executive-coaching world — doesn’t mean that things are beautiful and working well. It means that things operate as they do in our organizations because they are being reinforced. So we’re not surprised when we examine how work gets done (or doesn’t get done), things are exactly as we should expect them to be: good or not-so-good.

Frontline employees do what the company culture reinforces, whether that’s great performance or not-so-great (things are “perfect”). To inspire engaged employees, great performance and wowed customers, the culture must reinforce only what is desired.

Corporate culture changes only when the people that live in that culture change. People change only when they see their leaders consistently model desired behaviors. Therefore, to change their organization’s or team’s culture, leaders must define, demonstrate, and reinforce their desired culture.

Here are strategies used by many of my successful culture leaders. Might some of these work for you?

  • Make performance expectations and values expectations explicitly clear. Create specific, measurable, and trackable performance standards. Define values in observable, tangible, measurable terms (not in attitudinal terms).
  • Hold all leaders and staff accountable for both performance and values. Once standards of performance and citizenship are defined, celebrate efforts and accomplishment towards both — and redirect efforts that fall short of performance and citizenship targets. No excuses.
  • Be consistent role models of performance standards and valued behaviors yourself. No excuses.
  • Connect with staff throughout the organization to learn how well the culture is operating. Spend 30 minutes a day wandering around your work environment, connecting one-on-one with staff. Ask “How is it going?” and “What can we do to make your job easier?” Learn where gaps exist then act to close those gaps.

What effective “culture alignment” practices and activities have you experienced? How do you work to keep your team culture on the right track? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Corporate Culture Survey: What is it like to work in your company culture? Contribute your experiences in my fast, free Performance-Values Assessment. Results and analysis will be shared in an upcoming post and podcast on my blog site, Driving Results Through Culture.

Podcast: Listen to this post now with the player below. Subscribe via RSS or iTunes. The music heard on these podcasts is from one of my songs, “Heartfelt,” copyright © Chris Edmonds Music (ASCAP). I play all instruments on these recordings.

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