Like the proverbial many ways to skin a cat, there are many ways to change the culture of an organization. There are also some principles that have proven their worth along with more than a few myths that have crept into the popular literature on the topic. Here are a few of those myths that you should ignore in the vast sea of change mantras.
Myth #1: The only way to change culture is to hire for it
Assuming you know what you’re looking for and how to hire for it to get the culture you want—two big IFs—consider this: How practical is it to clean out a large percentage of your workforce and hire people with the right culture fit? For most of us, not very. Of course, you don’t have to clear out the so-called deadwood all at once. You could simply try and change the culture through attrition. But unless you use a revolving door approach to hiring and firing, it could take years to have enough employees with the proper culture and orientation to make a noticeable difference. And by the time you get enough of the right people hired, most of them will be damaged goods by virtue of having been steeped in the old culture you hired them into.
That’s not to say that targeting applicants with the best desired culture fit for your company is a bad idea. It just means that unless you are opening a new business or facility where you can hire all new people, using hiring as your primary strategy for getting the right culture is neither practical nor realistic.
Myth #2: Real change only occurs when leaders demand it
Forced change is a lost cause whether through edict, threats, restructuring, or top-down programs. In fact, the culture change landscape is littered with failures that occurred when leaders tried to install a program that employees—the targets of change—rejected. We’ve seen it happen with nearly every management fad that has come and gone from quality circles to re-engineering, lean manufacturing, and most attempted workplace transformations. When leaders push new ways of working—like lean processes—and the workforce isn’t committed to them, new tools don’t get used and new processes get ignored resulting in one more failed change effort.
The simple lesson from history: Coercion elicits resistance; collaboration elicits commitment.
Myth #3: Culture change is always a slow, multi-year process and not worth the effort
While it is true that pioneering interventions in workforce change took many years, we have come a long way since then. Many research-based models and techniques have been developed over the years to help you more quickly shift your organization to higher performance and engagement levels. When your leadership team and workforce are committed and prepared, you can experience positive results in a matter of months, depending on the size of your workforce and the resources you commit. And the remarkable improvements in productivity, quality, or efficiency that are characteristic of successful culture change initiatives will validate your decision to champion it.
Having said that, culture change is never simple even if principles and techniques for carrying it out sometimes seem like it. If it were, more companies would succeed at it, right? The reason the first two myths I mentioned are relevant is because leaders often read articles and blogs suggesting that improving organization performance is as simple as hiring the right people or issuing the right directives. In them, the authors ignore the hard work of personal change and confronting old attitudes and behaviors. The third myth provides an easy excuse to reluctant leaders who want to remain convinced that change is too hard or not worth the effort. It’s also often presented as the basis for acting on the first two “simple” alternatives.
Nevertheless, the best leaders aren’t fooled into thinking they can take the easy way to change. Nor do they excuse themselves from the work of creating a better organization simply because of the time and effort required. Instead, they take a sound approach committing to the hard work necessary for achieving tremendous results made possible from positive culture change.
TRYING IT ON FOR FIT:
Before committing to a culture change initiative, ask yourself the following: 1. Is your senior-most team open to making personal changes they may find difficult to make? 2. Are leaders prepared to engage the workforce in discussions about choice instead of proscribing change? 3. Has your change agent demonstrated sufficient business-unit wide culture change experience to avoid being misled by the many myths circulating about the topic? 4. Is your organization committed to involving all reporting levels in the change process? If your answer is “yes” to all of these questions, you should seriously consider pursuing culture change in your organization. Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!
Kevin Herring is co-author of ‘Practical Guide for Internal Consultants’, and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.