When organizations set out to implement large change initiatives, culture is always on the agenda. Culture, however, is merely a label used to summarize organizational beliefs and behaviors. To change culture, change the organization’s beliefs about itself and the way it acts as a result.
Values Underpin Everything
I spent a significant portion of my career at an organization that has two primary values – objectivity and quality. Objectivity is a key component of integrity, and quality speaks to rigor and accountability. Those are good values. When the time came to execute significant workplace change there was no thought of conditioning, compromising, or changing these values. Just the opposite. Because the values are well understood and appreciated throughout the organization, they are able levers when needed to effect change. People are smart, they will know when organizational behavior aligns with or diverges from stated values, you will not need to tell them. When they see organizational values being honored and used to inform and guide change initiatives they will understand that leadership is steering the ship in a new direction, thereby aiding adoption.
Change Beliefs to Change Behavior
Organizations act based on beliefs. To understand beliefs and change them when necessary, one must understand why they exist. You probably have personal examples of cases where you had to change a belief. Maybe it was about a relationship or a long-held tenet of faith. Those kinds of beliefs are hard to change. It didn’t just happen. Ask yourself what was required and how you processed that change. Beliefs change because new data brings truth. The same is true when speaking of corporate beliefs. It’s about the data. How do you get new data? Test everything. By test, I mean challenging the basis of the belief. Assuming it must be true because it has always been or is widely believed to be true is not a valid basis for decision or action. One must test the underlying structure of a belief. Looking at each element of the structure through lenses of rigor and objectivity will reveal its truth or its untruth. Once beliefs have been validated, or changed if necessary, then you have a basis for changing behavior.
Change Behavior to Change Culture
With accurate beliefs in place there is now a reason for behaviors to change. Continuing old behaviors that did not accomplish their purpose is irrational. Once people believe differently it is natural that they will act differently. When they believe and act differently they will, in fact, be establishing a new culture. Changing organizational beliefs and behaviors is hard work. There must be a basis in fact, there must be an imperative motivator, and there must be a willingness and commitment to looking at everything with new eyes with an intent to change. Leadership must act with integrity, transparency, and resolve; while at the same time allowing others to influence the project as they become partners.
Changing organizational culture can be a tall order, but if it is needed there is a way to get there. Leaders must define the need, lead the effort, communicate consistently, and allow others to change their beliefs and behavior in partnership.