you say you want a revolution: three steps to changing culture

Company culture . Can’t escape hearing about it, but why is it important? Stripped of all buzzword mystique, culture is just “the way things are done” in the organization (or the team). It’s the personality of the company. Just like people, some are stiff and precise, some are loose and casual, and some are all over the board. We usually refer to the company, but culture also applies at the department or team level. Every group has its own feel or culture.

If the culture isn’t what you want, no problem. Changing the culture of a company, department, or even a team isn’t easy, but it is possible. It takes time, patience and persistence. There are three broad steps to reshaping the culture.

1. Decide what you want the culture to be. One way of thinking about culture is to consider it the default decisions and actions. When X event happens, we always take Y action. For example, “We have a culture of the highest integrity. When any dishonesty is discovered, we terminate the person immediately.” Or, “We are a customer service culture. When a customer wants to return an item, we always accept it, no questions asked, no hassle involved.”

So what do you want the culture of your team or company to be? What are the characteristics you would want anyone and everyone to use to describe the atmosphere?

Here’s the challenge: whether you consciously and deliberately choose a culture or not, there will be a culture. It will be whatever decisions and actions you support, reward, and tolerate.

2. Design processes and rewards to support that culture. If you’re trying to create a culture of high quality but the pay scale is based on volume, you will have a culture of volume – always. If you want a culture of simple, fast customer service but the processes are onerous, cumbersome, and unfathomable, you will continue to have a culture of complex and cumbersome customer service. If culture is the default way of acting, then the default way of acting IS the culture. Words won’t change it, only action. Different action = different culture. Same action = same culture.

3. Make selection decisions that support the culture. If you want a culture of outstanding customer service, don’t hire misanthropes. New hires should have the skills to do the job (duh!) but also the behaviors and inclinations that will allow them to both support and thrive in the culture you are creating. People who won’t support the desired behaviors/actions will be a continual drain on the culture. If they already exist in the team/company, they need to move along to a company with a culture better suited to them. NOTHING destroys attempts at shaping culture quicker than continuing to reward and employ people whose actions are in clear opposition to the intended culture.

For example, if you want a culture of integrity do not continue to employ people who clearly lack it just because, “they get results.” Doing so, only reinforces a culture of getting short term results by any means necessary.

There you go: know what you want to create, reward and support the necessary behaviors, and make selection (and de-selection) decisions that support what you want. Have patience and perseverance. It won’t change overnight, but it will change.

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