Culture Change: What Works…and What Doesn’t

I am working with three companies on their cultures, and regularly find misconceptions about what it takes to change or strengthen corporate culture.  Additionally, while many leaders want to improve their culture, there’s sometimes hesitation because of past culture projects that cost a lot, took too much time, and didn’t get great results.  So here’s what works and what doesn’t work.

First, what is “culture”?  Culture is the set of beliefs that strongly influence behaviors.  For example, FedEx’s belief  of getting a package delivered “absolutely, positively overnight” greatly affects the actions of its people.

What works in culture change:  Culture is changed when a leader decides that things aren’t working as well as they need to, sets out to change the culture by acting differently, and gets others to also change their behaviors.  If the new behaviors result in improvements, then the change will be successful.  That’s an overly simple but accurate description.

What doesn’t work:  Big communication campaigns, t-shirts, coffee mugs, group meetings, presentations about values, balloons, and hoopla.  These are expensive, time-consuming, and have virtually no impact on the way people behave at work unless coupled with behavior change. In fact, they can have the opposite effect, causing skepticism and distrust.

Here’s an example:  I worked with a group of large call centers of 100 to 500 seats for a national broadband company.  The company wanted call center operators to take the time necessary to listen to customers, answer their questions, and solve their problems the first time they call.  They ran a big internal campaign with all the hoopla, but the customer satisfaction results did not change at all.  The reason?  Call center managers measured performance based on “handle time”– the less time spent with a customer, the better the performance.  Once the managers changed their behaviors, so did the agents.

The problem with big culture change campaigns is they assume that a change in thinking will change behaviors.  It seldom does.  This is why entire industries are devoted to diets and exercise.

The key principle is:  Don’t try to think your way to a new way of acting.  Instead, act your way to a new way of thinking.

So if you want to change or strengthen your culture, focus on senior management behavior first, making sure they reflect the values and beliefs you want the culture to reflect.  Then work on reinforcing mechanisms to make sure that those behaviors get ingrained, and that nothing is sending conflicting signals.

Practical Gems From Excellent Leaders

From my observations over 30 years of consulting, coaching, and executive work:

  • The best leaders know that people respond to excellent managers, challenging and stimulating work, and high-level opportunities to grow.
  • They do not underestimate their people—ever.
  • They are candid, honest, and up-front with people; never playing “gotcha,” “favorites,” or pretending to seek consensus when they already know what they want to do.
  • They welcome input, debate, and contrary views on key decisions knowing that different perspectives and ideas will improve everyone’s decision making. But once a decision is made they expect everyone to fully support it, both publicly and privately.
  • They set their standards of performance high, even though they know that people will respond at different levels.
  • They demand that people move at the leader’s pace because they know that people will become faster and better. (As opposed to going the pace of the slowest person.)
  • They get a sense of pride and accomplishment from the accomplishments of their people, and they recognize people for doing great work.
  • They find that helping others to exceed their own expectations is extremely rewarding.
  • They make tough decisions when they need to and don’t allow bad behaviors or dysfunctional relationships to continue.
  • Finally, they understand that their own behaviors have a significant impact on the entire organization and its culture, so they are role models.

Are You An Effective Communicator?

90% of managers believe they are good or excellent communicators, while the people they’re leading put that number at about 20%.  That is pretty much universal.  What makes for an excellent communicator?    Concise writing, focused speaking, and testing for understanding are all important, but the key attributes of effective executives are reflective listening and insightful questioning.  Remember too that communication does not happen when a message is sent, but when it is received and understood.  That is especially important in an age when everyone is bombarded by messages.  Communication skills are hugely important and can be learned if you take the initiative.

Weak Company Performance and Great Employee Reviews

Bob LeggeMy most successful clients are very good at aligning individual goals with strategic intent so that everybody is actively working to achieve the company’s strategy and acting like an owner of the company. What you want to avoid is rewarding people for doing well on things that don’t further or support strategic goals. That is one of the reasons why a company may not have good results, yet employees are rated highly for their performance. Be sure that you have good alignment; that you have all your people making decisions, being evaluated, being rewarded for the support of the strategic plan, driving company growth, and keeping and maintaining your best customers.