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How Culture Kills Change, Part 2

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How Culture Kills Change, Part 2

It’s an undisputed fact that a poisoned organizational culture can kill all change initiatives. It doesn’t matter how competent your project management team is, how enthusiastic the board is, or even if your strategies have worked in every other company that you know of. If your culture is poor, then you have a serious problem on your hands. That’s because senior executives want their organizations to change as quickly as possible, and culture takes a lot longer.

Organizational culture is a learned behavior. That’s why it takes so much time to change it. And so that means that you have to create the culture that you want before the changes you seek become necessary. Unfortunately, those at the top seldom think this far ahead.

Culture consists of the collective behaviors of all who work in an organization. It’s based on beliefs that they have about what they see others do or fail to do.

For example, what is the norm when junior employees do a great job? Do the managers get all the credit, bonuses, and promotions; or do the junior staff that were responsible for it get them instead? Or, if something goes disastrously wrong as the result of something a senior manager did or allowed to happen, is he / she disciplined, or are those further down the food chain blamed, demoted, or fired?

These two examples alone speak volumes about what you think and believe. It doesn’t matter what you say.

So how can you change a negative organizational culture into a positive one? The discipline called organizational behavior encompasses this issue. Thousands of articles and books have been written on the topic. You’re not going to get a formula of three, five or even two dozen steps on how to do it, and articles that you read which claim to do so either underestimate the magnitude of what is required or ignore the fact that it exists. But you can do it provided you don’t sabotage it along the way.

There’s no better place to start making this change than with you. One of the quirks of human beings is that they have a knack for spotting their own deficiencies in other people. It’s the idea of seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while missing the block of wood in your own.

You could start by making a list of all the things you’d like to change in others – everything you think is obstructing your plans, and then ask yourself what you have done to cause them.

Let’s pick something that’s comparatively small: pens. The US Government is so concerned about its pens being pilfered that each one has stamped on it “US Government” or even “Property of US Government.” Imagine how much that must cost as opposed to buying a million pens without this customization. Yet, how many are in desk drawers at home, and how many have you seen in the possession of those who have nothing to do with a Government job? How did they get into the hands of the general public?

Now imagine a problem in your company. Maybe it’s something like using a company vehicle to make a quick trip to the grocery store, perhaps during a lunch hour; copying a Christmas letter on the office’s photocopier, or staying late to use the organization’s telephone to make an overseas call. All of these things may seem minor or even part of the perks of your position, but each one contributes to the culture where you work.

If you want to change that culture for the better, then you have to set the example, and people have to know that you are. There was a time when simply doing the right thing was enough. But nowadays, the right thing is determined by the individual. That means that you have to tell them why you’re doing it and – this is very important – you must not threaten them if they don’t comply. Fear will make matters worse. Instead, you have to do it for the right reasons – in other words, because it is the right thing to do. There will be some who will carry on as before; but when a critical mass does the right thing, nearly everyone else will fall into line.

But, it has to start with you. You are the organization, and you are the culture.

Change yourself first.

Also, check out How Culture Kills Change, Part 1.

Other articles you may be interested in:

Jesse Jacoby
The Editor of Emergent Journal and founder of Emergent, Jesse is a recognized expert in business transformation. He and his team partner with Fortune 500 and mid-market companies to deliver successful people and change strategies. Jesse is the creator of the Accelerating Change & Transformation (ACT) model and developer of Change Accelerator and Savvy Transition. Contact Jesse at 303-883-5941 or jesse@emergentconsultants.com.

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