How to Pull Off Organizational Culture Change | Bonfyre

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How to Pull Off Organizational Culture Change | Bonfyre Breakdown

5 min

Pulling off organizational culture change effectively is difficult–but it’s not impossible.

But when large-scale change comes, it’s not a secret that leaders will prioritize adoption rates and implementation before bringing company culture along for the ride. Culture, however, is an indispensable component of a successful change strategy. It’s called “how we do things here” for a reason. Culture must change alongside operations to meet not only the needs of the business but the people that make it run.

According to Jerome Parisse-Brassens, Regional Director for Walking the Talk Asia Pacific and a culture expert in his own right, there are three fronts to tackle this undertaking. This month on the Bonfyre Breakdown, we’re taking a look at his recent Culture University article explaining the three-pronged approach that gets organizational culture change to stick.

What’s it about?

Parisse-Brassens kicks things off with his theory on why change is so notoriously hard to pull off. For organizational culture change to take root, strategic efforts need to be applied in three areas at the same time:

  1. The organizational level;
  2. The team level;
  3. And the individual level.

Per Parisse-Brassens, one of the most common pain points of organizational culture change is that change practitioners will home in on only one area–the organizational level–and neglect the other two. But as we’ll explore below, all three levels are important in their own ways.

Culture change at the organizational level

We have a lot of respect for leaders who can successfully manage culture changes in the workplace. Why? Because it’s no small undertaking. Leaders must reconcile the interests of the organization’s key stakeholders with those of employees as they push the company into its future. On top of that, they–along with any other change agents–must also personally embody the desired changes as a show of commitment and authenticity to all involved.

All together, it’s a lot to manage and it’s part of the reason why Parisse-Brassens says most companies manage change at just the organizational level. This is the highest level of culture change to operate from, the one with which companies are most comfortable. It’s concerned mostly with the shifting of systems and processes. In other words, “the way we do things around here” is literally changing.

Related: 5 Tips for Managing Corporate Culture Through Change

But there’s more to this variety of organizational culture change. “This level of change is also about the symbols the organization chooses (consciously or not) to send a message about what is valued in the workplace,” writes Parisse-Brassens.

Naturally, as systems and process change, so too do the ways in which they are measured. The new KPIs set by change agents will take on an almost totemic significance for employees, who will use them to decipher the new culture’s values post-change.

Organizational culture change at the team level

Change isn’t just a matter of deploying a new process or two, setting a handful of KPIs, and just calling it a day. Leaders have to make these systems work for the people actually using them. Hence the need to apply organizational culture change at the team level.

Parisse-Brassens strongly advocates for making change relevant to each of the company’s teams. After all, teams often develop their own “way of doing things” (it’s how organizational subculture forms), and thus will need to find their own way of embodying the culture changes.

Parisse-Brassens identifies the team level as a proving grounds of sorts for organizational culture change. When change is focused on this level in a disciplined practice, social groups in teams will test out the new desired practices and iterate on the behaviors that work best for them.

“Your team members can observe you in action and give you recognition and feedback,” he writes. “They can let you know whether you are heading in the right direction or not. They are the easiest pressure point for you to start behaving according to the new norm.”

Beyond social reinforcement, Parisse-Brassens says change practices at the team level need to be spent contextualizing the purpose of the change. Time needs to be spent with teams (while everyone is together) assessing their current behaviors and gauging how far they need to go before change can be considered “complete.”

Notably, this practice is something Susan Heller, a change strategist and coach, encouraged in a recent Around the Bonfyre discussion of change management communication. The more opportunities teams have for open discussion of their change experiences, the more likely it is they discover ways to overcome their biggest pain points.

“Getting the people who are highly resistant engaged in creating the change is a great technique because it gives them back that lost sense of control,” she said. “It lets them know they genuinely have a voice.

Changing organizational culture, one individual at a time

The final level of organizational culture change that requires a dedicated focus is also the hardest to achieve: the individual level. Unfortunately, it’s also the most important level.

“Without individual change, there is no change,” says Parisse-Brassens. “Cultural transformation starts with personal transformation. In other words, culture change is the sum of all the individual changes that are happening in the organization.”

The reasons why making individual changes at work is so difficult is no different than in our personal lives. If you’ve ever tried to change your diet, start a new exercise routine, or even just carve out time for a hobby, any number of issues can arise. Individual change is slow, it’s challenging (sometimes in unexpected ways), and it requires an active, concerted effort.

There are no easy answers for making organizational culture change stick at an individual level. While the feedback loop provided by team members and fellow colleagues is valuable, Parisse-Brassens says individuals need a catalyst to turn change behaviors into habits.

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You can’t guarantee a catalyst for every employee, but you can make it more likely by doing two things: making culture change a personal experience and providing a space for individual reflection. Parisse-Brassens recommends this reflection start first with managers, as they contemplate things like:

  • Their dominant personal style;
  • The beliefs and assumptions that drive their behavior;
  • And the strengths that will push them to eliminate undesired habits.

It may be a struggle, but if organizational culture change can be implemented at the individual level successfully, the benefits extend far outside the workplace.

“This level is the one that will make change sustainable in the long term,” Parisse-Brassens says. “It is also often the one that people remember for life. In actioning it, you are not only changing the organization for the better, you are also changing lives.” 

This month’s Bonfyre Breakdown discussed “The 3 Levels of Change Required to Shift Culture,” an article from Culture University. Bonfyre Breakdown is the featured article series in our Monthly Roundup newsletter, a collection of our favorite culture, engagement, and communications articles from across the web. Subscribe today to see all the articles highlighted in the latest newsletter!

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