Culture is "the way we work around here." It may be broadly defined as the values, attitudes, feelings, beliefs, behavioral patterns, habits, practices, rituals, and taboos that people in an organization share.
Culture has pervasive and profound impacts on the performance of an organization, as well as on staff's quality of work-life. Thus, getting the culture right is an important responsibility of leadership.
Two Aspects to Culture
The various attributes of culture can be sorted into two categories:
Values guide behaviors.
But the converse is true as well. When behaviors change, values ultimately come into alignment (to resolve the cognitive dissonance).
Change either, and the other falls in line.
So what's the best way to go about changing an organization's culture?
One traditional approach to organizational culture defines acceptable values. Examples include:
Another common approach is to prescribe feelings and attitudes. For example, the Zappos culture includes:
Zappos' culture is also defined by its goals (outcomes):
Pros and Cons of Traditional Approaches
The advantages of these approaches is that they're brief. They consist of a few high-level phrases that fit on a poster or coffee mug.
And they may be inspiring. These are things we all like and desire in our work environment.
But there's a big down-side. These traditional approaches to culture are not actionable.
Thus, they're difficult to teach. New employees stub their toes trying to fit in. And people develop different interpretations of what it takes to comply, leading to inconsistent implementation.
They're also difficult to measure. Thus, hiring and performance appraisal decisions may be somewhat arbitrary. And it's tough to enforce compliance.
The intangibility of these traditional approaches can lead to a cult of insiders who claim to know the culture, and outsiders who struggle to learn what these insiders struggle to articulate.
Organizations that try to change culture by prescribing values, attitudes, and feelings are the ones who say, "It takes a generation to change culture."
There's a reason they say this: This is not a practical method of change.
When you tell your staff, "We value teamwork," but their peers aren't willing to help, does teamwork improve? Do bosses even have the right to tell people what to value?
When you're feeling sad and someone says, "Try to feel better," do you feel better? Does it do any good to dictate attitudes and feelings?
If you don't know any other way to change culture, what can you do? Some say, "It's all about hiring people who fit." They eliminate candidates who would learn their culture if only given a chance. Of course, you can't turn away so many qualified candidates unless you pay at the high end of market.
The bottom line: Attempting to change culture by preaching values, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs is generally ineffective (and can be costly).
Instead of promoting values, consider "behaviorism" (a branch of learning theory).
We've all heard the saying, "Never criticize the child. Criticize the behavior." That's a manifestation of behaviorism.
From Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner through modern-day Cognitive Behavioral Therapy -- whether it's child development, skills training, or adult addiction therapy -- the behavioral approach has proven to be an effective method of change.
A behavioral approach to organizational culture focuses on actional principles, phrased as, "We do this."
Pros and Cons of the Behavioral Approach
Behaviors are tangible. They're effective as a method of change for three reasons:
The result: With a behavioral approach, we've seen massive change in culture in large organizations in less than a year.
There is one disadvantage: A list of desired behaviors is more lengthy -- typically 20 or more pages when printed.
It's not something that fits on a poster or coffee mug. It looks more like a handbook, a pragmatic tool that guides people on how to approach diverse situations.
One organization printed their behavioral principles as a pocket-booklet. Whenever their executive was asked about how to handle a challenging situation, he'd pull out the booklet and say, "Let's see what our culture says about that...."
That leader was sending two strong signals: 1) I care about our culture. 2) Our culture is a practical tool (not shelf-ware).
The behavioral approach to culture takes a bit of work; but it works!
Themes and Examples
A comprehensive definition of organizational culture addresses these themes:
But you can't stop here. These themes are just chapter titles in your culture handbook.
Within each theme, you need to define actionable behaviors that add up to the desired outcome.
Database of Best Practices
A database of behavioral principles in all those themes has been collected and fine tuned. Consider them "best practices" in organizational culture.
This database is part of a comprehensive reference library on culture.
This database is the product of the collective wisdom of dozens of organizations that have been through the Culture in Action process in past decades.
But wait. You can't get your culture out of a book!
This database provides a starting point for leaders who are developing their own unique set of principles. It's not intended as an "off the shelf" culture; rather, it helps leaders word their own ideas clearly, and suggests principles they might want to consider adding to their list.
Cultural change begins with carefully worded principles of behavior, written in such a way that everybody knows exactly what to do.
These principles are crafted by the organization's leadership team. Through consensus on each principle, they understand the behaviors well enough to teach them; and they commit to personally practicing them, and to implementing the new culture in their groups.
Once they're written, the cultural principles are "rolled out" through a series of training courses or manager-led workshops, one theme at a time.
Our experience is that education is best done in small-group sessions in which people have time to ask questions and fully understand each principle. In these sessions, it helps to translate principles into local practices by discussing what people in that specific group must do differently.
These sessions can also be used to gather staff's feedback and update the principles accordingly. When leaders do this, everybody has participated in the design of the culture.
Education must be reinforced by continued leadership modeling and mentoring, and by incorporating compliance with the new culture into people's performance appraisals.