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How Getting Real With Leaders Can Help Company Culture Change

5 min

No one said company culture change would be easy. In fact, sustained culture change can be one of the most difficult things to affect in an organization.

We hear from everyone–friends, family, even campy inspirational pictures–about how “change is good.” While there’s certainly truth to that sentiment, most people prefer their resting state.

The amount of effort it takes for just one person to change behaviors and attitudes beyond temporary cosmetic fixes is exhausting. This issue becomes dramatically more complicated at the organizational level, where you’re not just dealing with the work attitudes of one person, but hundreds, potentially even thousands of people.

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The need for company culture change can arise for a variety of reasons. A merger could require the reconciliation of two company cultures. Market conditions could change, requiring a systemic overhaul of processes and organizational structure. Toxic communication patterns and behaviors could build to a tipping point, resulting in a very special episode of Extreme Makeover: Company Culture Edition.

But when the call for culture change rings, we all have a responsibility to answer it, especially corporate leadership. If company leaders aren’t facilitating this process, genuine culture change will not occur and the organization will continue to operate from a place of dysfunction.

Why should leaders care about company culture?

Company leaders have a unique influence over the direction of company culture. The way leaders strategize, communicate, interact with colleagues, and perform their job functions all set the stage for the cultural norms and behaviors expected in a company. While we’ve come to understand culture as something everyone shares ownership of, leaders have the unique power to stifle or foster its organic growth in an organization.

Unlike politicians, who are beholden to the constituency that elects them, company leaders aren’t democratically elected by employees. Leaders either played a role in creating the company, or were selected by a much smaller population of shareholders and executives.

One could make the argument that leadership’s first responsibility, then, is to ensure return on shareholder investment, while matters of organizational culture and the employee experience are secondary, if not immaterial. After all, having a good company culture isn’t a quarterly metric. Or is it?

The importance of shareholder value is undeniable, but employees are leaders’ most critical resource for delivering that value. If leaders manage exclusively from a strict, “my way or the highway” approach, they’ll buy temporary compliance from employees but undercut feelings of trust, loyalty and engagement. Time and again, the most productive organizations have proven to be those with positive work cultures. How’s that for shareholder value?

Overcoming corporate inertia.

In my previous role as a culture consultant I worked with many organizations who knew company culture change was necessary, but couldn’t identify where their problems were coming from or how to fix them. Through my own investigation, I would often discover leadership played a part in the culture issues by way of corporate inertia–a pervasive desire to maintain company status quo once a leader starts to feel too comfortable with their position in an organization.

When leaders are rising through the ranks or first starting their business, they’re more willing to take risks. The thought of gambling your reputation is more appealing when you have more to gain than to lose. Sure, a bad investment could cost you your job, but the payout from a calculated risk could mean a better market positioning, or a promotion to that big executive title.

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The corporate inertia kicks in once leaders have ascended to their desired position. Leaders understandably close ranks to protect their achievements, and the methodology, team structures, and systems that got them there become calcified within the company. As a result, culture stagnates as new ideas are kicked to the curb for being too risky.

Corporate inertia doesn’t come from a place of maliciousness. More often than not, it comes from intelligent, well-intentioned leaders who love their teams, but have merely settled into well-practiced habits that keeps bosses and shareholders happy. And the longer those habits stick around, the harder they are to break.

The simple truth is that in order to make a difference, you have to do something different. If you’re an HR manager or another leader trying to get your leadership team onboard with culture change, here’s how to give that first push to overcome corporate inertia.

Be honest.

When the time comes to get leaders on board with company culture change, honesty is key. Speak the words that are hard to hear, and even harder to embrace. Tailor your message to be as forceful or as delicate as your audience requires, but as the old saying goes, fortune favors the brave. Above all else, make sure you’re always addressing the real issues you’ve identified. If you choose to string along leadership for months until they’re ready to hear what you have to say, company culture will go neglected for the duration and employees will be worse off for it.

Get the timing right.

There’s something to be said for good timing. Company culture change is not an easy conversation to have, particularly with a group that wields as much power and influence as corporate leaders. Ask yourself, “Does this need to be said by me right now?” If it’s on a Monday morning and the CEO is trying to organize her priorities for the week, perhaps not. Maybe a slow Friday afternoon works better. Use your best judgment about your company leaders’ schedules and attitudes to determine the right timing.

Be prepared with solutions.

If you can identify your problems, you can start to identify your solutions too. Offering criticism without constructive solutions will immediately sour the conversation. Culture change is a path forward beyond the dead end of corporate inertia. While your solutions won’t be fully formed in this first conversation, frame them positively and make it clear how leaders can participate in their development.

Allow time for processing.

No one wants to hear they have problems, let alone that they’re contributing to those problems. You can’t solve company culture in just one conversation. Depending on the personalities that make up your leadership team, you’ll need to build in time for them to process the information. Allow for a break, but resume talks soon. The longer you draw out your preliminary conversation, the more appealing corporate inertia is likely to look.

In many ways, breaching that first discussion with leaders is the most difficult part of the process. The path ahead is by no means an easy one. Internalizing the new behaviors, attitudes, and norms that make up your new culture will take time. But these are all made easier through clear, consistent, and constructive communication. By making company culture change an ongoing conversation, leaders will learn to resist the pernicious comforts of corporate inertia. 

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Leadership Excellence Essentials by HR.com.

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