We point to it. We talk about it. We blame it.
You hear the refrain often: “The problem with our organization is our culture. It’s why we aren’t more innovative, why the wrong people are promoted, why we don’t have good leadership.” Some of these complaints are justified, if a bit counterproductive.
Workplace learning and performance professionals understand that culture can easily limit much of what we need to do. Because culture is hard to pin down in practical terms, let alone to effectively change for the better, it remains a baffling issue.
However, organizational culture is simpler than our personal cultures, and it is much easier to change than we imagine.
Defining organizational culture
Organizational culture is different from world cultures, those tapestries of shared histories, languages, beliefs, and foods, which are the source of our identity. Our personal culture affects how we marry, how we raise our children, how we celebrate events, and how we mourn death.
Organizational cultures are not so encompassing, lacking the broad links that help define how we understand ourselves among others. This weakness also implies that organizational cultures are dynamic. The good news is that organizational cultures can adapt and change to new influences quickly.
Organizational cultures are interpretive. Remember when you first took a position in a new company. Remember how strange things seemed, but soon that strangeness seemed to disappear. At that point, you knew the organization’s culture so well it didn’t seem to exist at all.
For example, bank headquarters are typically grand and luxuriant offices located amid urban centers. They often have bold artwork and distinctive furniture. Whether we acknowledge it or not, these characteristics are purposeful. The company wants you to feel that you are in a place of wealth.
This environment not only influences customers, but also the people who work there. Employees likely will come to espouse this same feeling of wealth and importance.
Most organizations do not rely on such overt references. Instead employees are left on their own to interpret an organization’s culture.
Identifying common references
Defining an organization’s culture requires being able to identify common organizational references. For example, how do employees describe their colleagues? What are some of the common phrases or stories they tell each other? Such depictions as “bureaucratic” or “people are not valued for their experience and expertise” become a common reference point for interpreting culture whether or not they are accurate.
References become so common in organizations that we often cease to question them. We stop interpreting and simply let the dominant references inform the way we work.
For instance, a co-worker returns from a meeting and says, “As usual, they didn’t read any of the documents I sent so the conversation went nowhere. Management doesn’t care about the work I’m doing. They were dismissive and wanted to talk about their issues more than all the hard work I did. It’s always the same. They just don’t care.”
If you are listening to this story while preparing for a presentation to a group, you may become hesitant, worried, or defensive. In turn, these attitudes may cause management to be dismissive of your ideas.
Consider another example. You are excited about starting a new position. Many of your new team members welcome you and share your excitement. One person even takes you aside to tell you how things really work. They tell you to avoid John because Susan, the director, really dislikes him.
This co-worker is providing you key references for how you should interpret the organization. The organization tolerates ignorance, and the directors share their personal impressions of people with other employees.
Those are powerful messages to new employees, and ones that will surely influence their interactions from that point forward. This example illustrates that simple stories actually transmit common organizational references.
When stories are negative, reductive, and focused on things that don’t work, energy, commitment, innovation, and teamwork suffer. For instance, when you hear such negative stories, do you return to your desk with the energy and commitment? Or do you spend a few hours regrouping, browsing the Internet, and making personal calls? Most of us fall into the latter category. Time we spend regrouping equates to unproductive hours that few organizations can afford to lose.
Changing the culture
Because stories help define an organization’s culture, it’s easy to use them to change that culture. Simply get people to tell stories that amplify the best aspects of the organization. More important, tell positive stories often to drown out the sound of competing stories.
Typically, organizations try to exemplify their stories by using a common vision and mission statement. Vision provides the aspirations. Mission provides the direction. Unfortunately, vision and mission statements often are poor stories. They either lack drama, or contain too much melodrama. They are abstract and fail to relate to dayto-day roles and responsibilities. They don’t engage workers.
Yet, changing an organization’s culture does depend on having a common framework. The framework can be used in various ways to get people to share stories about how people across the organization deliver exceptional performance.
Recently, organizations have been developing competency frameworks, which are sets of words and phrases that outline the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that the organization respects and that employees need to perform their jobs well.
Competency frameworks not only provide a solid foundation for talent management, but also are well suited for culture change initiatives. They provide a clear backdrop for asking questions and engaging workers to tell stories about what they do well.
Using a competency framework is the best way to generate a number of stories that exemplify the best aspects of the organization and, in the process, to effectively change the culture for the better.
This is an issue of volume. The trick is to counter the negative stories with true stories about positive experiences in the organization without any embellishments or editing.
Using inquiry, engagement, and review
The best way to get people to share good stories is through a cycle of inquiry, engagement, and review.
Inquiry. This includes soliciting answers to questions about how people interpret skill competencies and positive values. You might ask, “Think of someone who exemplifies teamwork. What is it that they do that embodies this competency? How could others learn from this example?” These sorts of questions force people to think differently and invite them to broaden their perspectives regarding organizational values.
Sample tasks in the inquiry phase:
* Conduct a five-question survey that asks people to cite examples of key competencies.
* Conduct a simple survey that invites people to share what they value about working in the organization.
* Set up a peer-interview process, whereby two people are given a questionnaire and asked to interview each other. Post interview results in a common forum.
Engagement. This builds on common themes identified during the inquiry phase by asking other people to comment on the stories that were shared. You might say, “Seventy-three percent of the people surveyed said that the best collaboration in our organization happens among small, informal groups that share a passion for a particular subject. Can you cite any examples of this type of collaboration that you’ve experienced?”
Sample tasks in the engagement phase include
* Conduct a survey that invites people to match specific workplace challenges with the competencies or other common references. Ask them to describe how they exemplified specific competencies to meet the challenge.
* Conduct a debate among members of the senior management team. For example, have management debate which of the competencies is the most important given the organization’s mandate.
* Invite general staff to describe why specific competencies are important and how their managers exemplify those competencies.
* Introduce training and development activities that align with the organization’s competencies.
Review. This action strives to uncover the best stories from the engagement and inquiry phases, as well as determine how best to circulate these stories throughout the organization. It also requires some investigation of patterns and trends in how people relate to the common references, competencies, or other frameworks that extol the organization’s best performance and values.
In particular, you want to identify common phrases, similarly stated challenges, or a typical story about high-performing individuals. Circulate common stories as broadly as possible, either via newsletters, the intranet, or on bulletin boards in break rooms.
In addition, when you spot a trend in the review phase, be sure to highlight it in the next cycle of inquiry, engagement, and review. For instance, if multiple employees report, “Our organization has some of the brightest minds in the field,” your next cycle of inquiry questions could include, “How does the fact that the organization has some of the brightest minds in the field enable it to build partnerships?”
Spotting the tipping point
How do you know how many times to repeat the inquiry, engagement, and review cycle? This is difficult to determine, but you’ll likely know it when you get there. Once you reach that point, changing the culture will continue on its own.
Organizations, like all systems, experience tipping points-points where system inputs are sufficient enough to cause exponential changes in a new direction. For example, physicians use this concept when prescribing medicines. They know precisely how much medicine will be needed to cause sufficient change to the system to combat bacteria or germs.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that level of scientific acumen in organizational dynamics. Instead, we need to rely on a keen eye and investigative talent to spot common cultural indicators.
Architects of cultural change programs must be patient and trust the process. It will be extremely difficult at times to see any change and to listen to pessimistic stories that disrupt work and negatively influence the organization’s culture. In fact, negative stories are sometimes told more often during the process, only to go silent after a short while.
This organizational dynamic is difficult to track. However, if you cease the process, negative stories will quickly overwhelm any good you may have started. Again, it’s like medicine. If you stop taking tablets before the prescription runs out, you risk having the infection return quickly and with full force.
Using your systems
Once a tipping point has occurred and you are satisfied that the organization is adopting a positive culture, you need to ensure that all of your systems, such as recruitment, training, talent management, and performance management, reflect and champion it. You want the new, positive stories to become so common that people can’t remember what came before.
If you follow the inquiry, engagement, and review process, you will undoubtedly create culture change. More importantly, you will definitely be surprised at how effective, productive, content, and committed employees become, and how much better it is to work at your organization.
Dorian LaGuantia is a Europe-based consultant; email@example.com.
Copyright American Society for Training and Development Mar 2008
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