Article: Can corporate culture be really changed?

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Can corporate culture be really changed?

Just like our ancestors and our yet to be born grandchildren culture was there before you came and will remain after you leave. The question is, are you culture ready?
Can corporate culture be really changed?

Intelligent strategies can take you only that far. Organizations that evolve with the teams have a very strong culture alignment within teams and across departments. Often I am asked this question – can culture be really changed?  

Consider a family of four. The parents want the children to eat more vegetables. The children want to eat more junk food. So the parents threaten them with punishments, coerce them with rewards, inspire them by eating more vegetables, preach to them about the benefits of eating more vegetables. But nothing works. So what would you do?

In the late 1970s, a researcher at the University of Illinois conducted a series of experiments on children. She wanted to figure how to bring in a change, a minor change of getting children to eat the vegetables they disliked. 

Now that’s tough. Any of us who have small kids know that. To get a child to eat what they dislike is tougher than climbing Mount Everest for most parents. 

Here’s what this researcher did. She got the child who doesn’t like a certain vegetable for instance – peas with several other children who actually loved eating peas. Within a meal or two, the pea hater transformed and started eating peas like a pea lover.

We, humans, are a predictable sort. We love to conform to what’s going on around us. This is the problem and also the solution.

There are many methods for achieving a cultural change. But actual transformation comes from within – an external trigger has to lead to an organic metamorphosis.

Changing the way we work, the way we solve our problems, the way we connect with each other, the way we communicate with each other – everything is a behavior that has its roots in the culture of the organization. 

Here are Two drivers of culture:

  1. Stories – We tell stories and love listening to them more. Like the time – when one of your colleagues got praised by the senior boss when someone got sacked for not toeing the line when someone got a promotion for having brought in a big transaction and more – this is the culture that gets ingrained. If the organization wants to be known for agility – that’s the story that people need to talk about. When people hear that agility got rewarded and “how” – they know the behavior they need to emulate. They also copy the leaders – for instance - if the leader is a quick thinker, that’s the behavior that people in his team will try to show – because that brings in a sense of belonging and more importantly makes them feel – that if they do what their boss does – they might be successful. If leaders and key influencers align their behaviors with what the cultural requirements of the organization, people will accept & adopt them faster. The behaviors of the leaders are shared as stories and that becomes the history of the organization.

  2. Processes – Processes are the arteries of the organization. If these are historical, archaic with no relevance to the present – it will be impossible to achieve a cultural transformation. Here’s an example of an organization which wanted to bring in a culture change. They wanted to bring in “customer first” as their new mantra. Everyone talked about it, agreed with it. One graduate trainee – decided to take the extra step of giving an angry customer – a refund of his entire amount. He wrote a mail seeking approval, the mail was passed around for a fortnight and by the time – he got his approval – the angry customer had moved on to another brand. Its important for processes to be built around the culture that you want the organization to have. Most of the time consultants who are running this exercise – seem to have no clue about this driver of cultural change. 

In a recent exercise, the organization wanted to bring in a culture of innovation and creativity. We looked at the behaviors that would bring in the needed mindset change. So, innovation and creativity would mean courage, going beyond the given, ownership, taking risks and thinking different. Just conducting a workshop to get people to think in this direction would be a futile exercise.  During the workshops, we noticed how people would smirk at the idea of risk and courage. On further investigation, we figured that the organization had multiple layers of approval for something as simple as leave application. Their processes were designed to minimize risk. Their organization structure was designed to ensure process adherence. No one was ever transferred from one department to another. People believed in linear growth. Employees were rewarded for compliance with processes and systems. So, the question was; do we really need innovation as our core culture or are we doing it as a tick mark exercise? 

A culture project seems exciting and the “in thing” to do. But is this really something your organization needs right now?

On the other hand, if you don’t fix the culture, your strategy, your goals will just remain on paper. Just like our ancestors and our yet to be born “grandchildren” culture was there before you came and will remain after you leave. The question is, are you culture ready?

Topics: Corporate, Life @ Work, Culture

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