One of the greatest challenges a leader can encounter is managing culture changes in the workplace.
All organizations will inevitably encounter the need for culture change, but pulling off that change successfully is hard. Culture is a statement of identity. It’s the organizational answer to questions including (but certainly not limited to) “Who are we? What’s our mission? How do we want to accomplish it, and what does that say about what we value?” If the answers to any one of these questions needs to change, it must be reflected in the shifting of behaviors of everyone in the organization. And considering how difficult it is to get one person to commit to change, imagine how that scales to an organization of 15,000 employees.
Recent research shows that, more than managing expectations or outlining goals, communication is the most important element of a change strategy. And the most potent culture communicators are leaders–every action they take shapes the culture beneath them. So when culture needs to change, company leaders must be the first people communicating the Who, What, When, Where, and Why. But complicating this endeavor is the evolving nature of how we construct company culture in the first place.
Modern companies are now welcoming the idea of culture as something that everyone in the organization, not just HR, “owns.” For employees, that ownership comes as a distinct organizational citizenship where their voice matters, and can influence operational decisions. Whereas culture was once something dictated and defined by a select few, evolving attitudes and new channels for feedback are positioning employees as prime culture builders–people who rightly get a say in how the organization operates because, frankly, they’re the ones operating it.
But culture is seldom solely defined by employee sentiment. The issue of shareholder value is one that looms large over organizational operations. Every company is beholden to shareholders who have made financial investments in its success. This is why at many large organizations, mission, vision, and value propositions are often lengthy affairs that explicitly address the financial obligations of the company. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that shareholder concerns are often why culture change occurs in the first place, with organizational operations shifting to accommodate fluctuating marketplaces.
So at opposite ends of the organizational spectrum there are two parties: the employees and the investors. Their interests in company culture may not be directly opposed, but nevertheless have plenty of opportunity to conflict with one another. And when, not if, culture has to change, the responsibility falls to the party in the middle–the leadership team–to develop an approach that addresses needs of each party, communicate that strategy, and model behaviors consistent with the desired changes. Why? Because while culture is everyone’s responsibility, the role leaders play in culture change is so uniquely powerful, it can make or break the entire effort.
There are two core areas where leaders can do a better job communicating culture changes in the workplace: the personal effort and authenticity they demonstrate.
Be present to be personal
One of the hardest elements of culture change is convincing employees things need to change in the first place. People are creatures of habit – they have predisposition to favor the comfortable, old way of doing things. When whispers of change start happening, they worry how these shifts will affect them. Leaders need to confront these fears head on.
McKinsey & Company has written in the past about the singular role executives, CEOs in particular, play in leading through times of transformation. Through its own research, the consulting firm concluded that significant culture change efforts were most successful when executives were able to step out in front of employees and make the story personal. Taking the time to be available to employees forces leaders to address their most important question – “How does this affect me?” – in a persuasive, human way.
I have witnessed the effectiveness of the executive’s role firsthand. I once worked in HR for a company that spun off from a much larger organization and went through a complete rebranding process. Everything from our name to our logo to our mission changed because we were effectively a new company. But even at this “smaller” size the business had upwards of 10,000 employees spread over several international locations.
To guide employees through this radical shift, the executive leadership team split up and personally visited employees at every single location. Whereas other businesses might use unengaging (and inexpensive) channels to relay this message, these leaders knew that in order set changes off on the right note, they needed to devote the necessary resources to field employees’ concerns.
I entered this process as one of many “change champions” selected by the leaders. As a champion, I facilitated follow-up sessions where we played a board game as a fun and interactive way to reinforce our new culture tenets. I was also there to answer their remaining culture change questions. If it sounds like this process took time, that’s because it did. But no question, it was worth it. I personally saw the difference in how employees were able to completely recite the methodology of how and why the changes were being made, as well as new culture statements like our mission and values. You just can’t get that level of retention from an email. It was a direct result of leaders making a genuine effort to keep their population engaged at every step of the education process.
Authenticity is consistency
A recent survey shows that most organizational change efforts fail, not because of poor planning but poor execution. This makes sense from the employee perspective. The initial display of effort and personability leaders show is the hook. It’s what grabs employees’ attention but it won’t hold it for long. Companies underestimate just how intelligent their employees are. After the initial change is announced, they’ll be watching leaders with an unblinking eye for any indication it’s not real.
Leaders need to be sincere and authentic in order for culture changes in workplace in the workplace to be successful. As McKinsey & Company writes, “CEOs who only give lip service to a transformation will find everyone else doing the same.” Leaders must be cognizant about the values they reinforce at every step of their follow through.
To be authentic, leaders must be consistent. Consistency is how “change” transforms from a disruptive, unwelcome presence into the company’s new normal. If a leader says integrity is a new core value, that person, more than anyone else in the company, is responsible for performing their job with integrity every day, until it’s clear to employees what integrity look likes. If the company announces they’re becoming a flat organization, leaders can’t get upset when lower-level employees try to act with a newfound authority.
If it sounds like building authenticity and sincerity takes time, it’s because it does. Employees won’t believe in change overnight, but each day leaders are consistent with the values they want to uphold, it lays another brick in the foundation of trust. The authenticity will show as leaders, over time, become visibly connected to the message they preach. And when employees believe that their leaders are authentic, the desired changes will take begin to take root in their daily behaviors.
Culture isn’t something that you define one time. The longer an organization operates, the more likely it is to go through culture change. Culture changes in the workplace can be organic, happening over time and employees come and go, or they can be the result of a concerted organizational effort. But in any circumstance, leaders must have the skills to communicate what those cultural values at all times, and the dedication to live those values authentically when it matters most.