latest thinking: understanding cultural change
Culture has been and is still one of the hottest topics in the current discussion about leadership and change. For many top leaders in corporations but also in the public and the non-profit sector, cultural change seems to be the golden key to achieve the ultimate goal of the organisation, be it making loads of money for the shareholders, to deliver a functioning public health system or to provide poor children with a better life. However, when those ambitious leaders — and the consultants that support them — them talk about the cultural change they envision, they usually refer to collective behaviours and attitudes they want to change:
We want out people to be business oriented and risk taking.
Our organisation needs to be more agile.
We need to break the silos.
There have been some historical attempts to transform culture of the entire organisation. This has mainly be the case when public utilities such as telecoms or public transport systems were privatised. I don’t know a single case in which this cultural change happened in less than ten years. In most of those organisations which have been given into the hands of private shareholders twenty to thirty years ago you can still find cultural relics that can be traced back to the foundation of those companies, which usually dates back to the late 19th or early 20th century.
Here is an attempt to understand what organisational culture is, how it develops and how it can be changed. Before we go deeper into that, we need to understand that sociology, anthropology, philosophy and theory of the arts all have different definitions of what culture means. Actually, the origin came from agriculture and it was Cicero who transferred the concept behind the word to describe the highest possible ideal for human development.
The essence of organisational culture has been described by Edgar Schein, John Kotter and many others. Here are my five cents:
Organisational culture is formed by deeply held collective beliefs in an organisation on how things are done, and it is expressed through behavioural patterns of individuals, teams and the entire organisation.
Simplified, there are three main aspects that contribute to the development of an organisational culture:
Society. Any organisation is embedded in a society which has its own specific culture. Even in the most global and international companies, one will find strong traces of the original national culture. Sometimes more than one. Deutsche Post DHL is a conglomerate of what the name says: the Deutsche Post which is still thoroughly German (what ever attributes you might relate to that) and the mythological American courier service once founded by Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn. Even 15 years after the merger, the two sub-cultures are very much alive side by side.
However, society has a much bigger influence on the culture of an organisation in the sense that generational shifts, and changes in values, behaviours and attitudes have an impact on how corporate cultures change. No wonder that many companies have become green in societies which value the protection of the environment.
The Founder’s Myth. In organisations that were founded by an individual or a small group you can find a strong DNA. And we know that DNA is difficult to change. Nature shows that even many mutations go unnoticed. A well known example is HP — the mythological garage of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard can still be found on the company’s website. Carly Fiorina who tried to change the company culture got quite a bloody nose during her attempt.
The Guild’s Laws. The culture of a classical engineering company is different from that of a creative agency and that again differs from a municipal police service. There are certain ways of “how things are done” in a sector and while competitors might differ in specific approaches, there are often more similarities than differences. That is one reason why Silicon Valley is so successful — most of the companies over there share a lot of cultural traits which makes it easy for people to integrate smoothly into their new company after a job swap.
As I have said before, an organisational culture can be assessed by observing it’s expressions — people’s and group’s behaviours. Because they are a result of culture, pure behavioural training of employees is often not sustainable in supporting cultural change. As Robert Dilts has described more than 20 years ago in his fundamental logical level model, sustainable change happens at the identity and belief levels which then lead to new behaviours.
There are four aspects which are both expressions but likewise determinants of culture. That means they change when culture changes but they can also be changed intentionally in an effort for transformation — they are close to the belief and the identity levels. What makes it difficult to describe them is that are intrinsic and largely embedded in the collective unconscious mind. The more systemic the changes of those determinants are, the higher the chance that a change initiative is successful.
Symbols and rituals. Companies know that their logos, their architecture, the way their CEOs address employees or shareholders, the attire, layouts of offices and many other symbols and rituals have an impact on how employees, customers and the general public perceives the organisation. They might express trust, efficiency, humanity, innovation, etc. They appear in stories and myths.
Relations. The way employees of an organisation relate to each other is another determinant and an expression of culture. The trend towards leaner hierarchies has an economic as well as a cultural aspect. We expect that an organisation becomes more agile with less boundaries between management levels, and with more distributed decision power.
Language patterns. We know from cognitive science that language creates reality. How employees talk about their organisation tells a lot about the culture but also influences it. Language is also a big differentiator of sub-cultures in an organisation. The engineering department has a different language than HR.
The level of cynicism expressed openly is often a good indicator for the general mood. Go into an organisation and hear people say that it is a tread mill or a torture chamber — and the organisation will be a torture chamber. The massive investment of some companies in conversation skills also depicts the importance of language for corporate culture.
Values. Value-based management has become an important tool for organisational development. All major company have spent big efforts in identifying the underlying values, redefining them, publishing them and making sure that their manager and employees adhere to those. The topic of values deserves a separate blog post which I announce herewith.
Summary: Cultural change in organisations takes time and effort. Relics of the original DNA which comes from the founder’s ambitions or from the general behavioural standards of the specific industry sector will always be found and are hard to overcome. Organisations which want to be successful in transforming their culture need to address symbols and rituals, relations, language patterns and values.