Closing the culture gap – Part 2

About how gaps occur and potent ingredients to close them

The central role of habits and unspoken agreements

As Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless describe in their book “The surprising power of Liberating Structures”, culture is the sum of all the behaviours of everybody in an organisation or community. It is “the way we do things round here” and “what we expect round here”. When leaders try to induce a culture-shift through installing new priorities, values or goals that people all agree to intellectually, then the idea is that new thinking drives new beliefs and new behaviour. This can work, but often it does not yield the desired outcomes because the unwritten contracts and habits are more powerful than the intellectual agreement. How can this be broken up? Through changing the habits and rituals. In Sonja’s case, what would have helped would have been for the leaders to invite and embrace feedback – e.g. by conducting a 360 feedback survey and showing some vulnerability by sharing the results and their development plans with the team. What also might have helped is to change the structure of the meetings in favour of a format that gives everyone equal airtime without interruptions.

Gaps in the landscape – like here in a nature reserve near our new home – can have important roles in the ecosystem. In organisations, the infamous culture gap can cause unnecessary friction and frustrations

In order to address this gap between the intellectual agreement and the unwritten contracts or rules known to the organisation, it is helpful to start by making it visible. Employer Branding processes have often tried to create a compelling brand and tell an attractive story about the employee experience of an organisation, but often this is once again creating a picture on the outside that isn’t seen or lived on the inside of an organisation. Instead of creating a brand that is wishful thinking or following a trend, it is much more helpful to state what actually is, to bring all those unwritten rules and “how we do things round here” to the surface. Of course this can be a painful experience. But revealing the reality helps to identify who you really are as an organisation, and you can then start to make conscious  decisions on who you want to become.

Who is in charge of culture?

Does it help to have a person in place who oversees culture or does that only shift accountability away from the leaders who are supposed to own the topic wholeheartedly? I had a conversation with someone in charge of culture at a start-up company who explained to me the challenges she sees in her work. The company has developed a set of values that have been defined and fleshed out together with the employees and rolled out to the organisation and with this, the leadership team considers the job of shaping culture done and readily shifts attention to other topics. Through this, the values have not been deeply ingrained into the company but put on like a layer of paint on top of what really happens. When she in her role as culture ambassador tried to address this, it quickly became evident that the leaders are not willing to dedicate more time to this topic or even reflect on how their own behaviour might undermine the values they installed and erode their credibility. This results in the employees considering the values a farce. For her, the conclusion was clear: In order for this to work, we have to link our values to our vision and strategy but also to processes and structures that make it easy for people to live these values plus it needs leadership which is able to reflect and really walks the talk. In a nutshell her advice is: Fewer posters, more action, and the ones whose actions create most ripples are clearly the leaders.

Three key ingredients for a sustainable culture shift

This is echoed by Vincent Ducret, who recently gave a talk organised by my friends from Shake Up the Workplace. Vincent shared his learnings and experience from shaping company culture in a large multinational company. When it comes to success factors for fostering an innovative and customer-centric corporate culture he honed in on three aspects:

1) You need to create a sustainable ecosystem, not a one-off training. The ecosystem should encompass community building, processes and systems as well as learning through real-life usage

2) Change is most sustainable if it takes place bottom-up involving early adopters and grows organically from there rather than mandating transformation top-down 

3) Be strict about which capabilities to expect: If people don’t want to build the required capabilities or are unable to live up to them then take the necessary consequences (i.e. not let everyone pass the certification, say goodbye to leaders who are stuck in the old ways)

The pivotal role of leadership

As Dominik Frisch and Monika Smith describe in the book “Business Purpose Design”, a company culture is healthy and strong if the values are present and visible in the fabric of everyday life. All approaches that seek to describe or change corporate culture are based on the same principle: the ability to perceive and reflect. So it all starts with self-aware leadership. A future-fit company needs leaders who understand the importance of their role in shaping the culture of the organisation and are humble enough to genuinely seek feedback, reflect on it and learn. Some programs come with leadership behaviours to set the bar in terms of what leaders should do to foster the desired culture. The problem with this is that in many cases this remains on a behavioural level. Leaders get for instance told to “show more interest in people” or “encourage diversity of opinion” but if the interventions do not touch the underlying beliefs driving the behaviour then they stand little chance of being sustainable.

To make it even more challenging, there are also system dynamics at play here. An organisation is a complex system of interactions and agreements shaped by individuals and their own beliefs. This comes with unspoken rules and assumptions and countless interdependencies and processes, all geared at upholding a state of equilibrium. So you cannot just push a button and change “it” – you can disturb or unsettle the system but it’s not really possible to “rearrange” it. Leadership can set examples, expectations and a clear direction, though.

Three examples of how not to play it

In this context it is probably not surprising that in many cases, when rolling out a culture change initiative based on values it is taken for granted that the top-leadership does not have to go through the training because they have so little time and it is assumed that they’re already really good at what they do (Why else would they be on the board in the first place?). If this sounds familiar to you, you might also recognise that in this small paragraph there are three hints on why many of these programs backfire: 

1) Rolling out an initiative top-down instead of creating an organic movement 

2) Training is supposed to do the trick; no sustainable ecosystem that touches on habits

3) Leadership that does neither reflect nor prioritise the topic highly enough

In the next and final part of this series, we will look at creating spaces for reflection, three frequent mistakes and examples that motivate me personally.

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