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.

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