The problem with culture change
Why has culture change been so hard to master thus far? Everybody has heard the phrase, “culture beats strategy.” It is something that needs repeating because of the difficulty organizations have in managing culture.
Many culture change initiatives overlook a powerful force at play; the way in which an individual fits in with others in a group.
People have a basic need to fit in with their peers. A bad day can be nothing more than one in which your peers disapprove of something you did. It’s often the sting of thinking about how others see us that makes showing up late, asking a stupid question or forgetting something important so painful. People make an effort to embody the behavior they think is appropriate and expected by those around them.
I hear often of the difficulty in rooting out persistent cultures inside organizations. This difficulty is likely due to the fact that leaders spend time trying to educate people on the negative aspects of an old culture and praise and encourage aspects of the new culture. It’s an attempt that only goes so far.
The reason cultures remain present for so long is because the individuals (whose action constitute the culture) do not establish status in their peer group by acting consistent with a new culture. On the contrary, an individual will stubbornly resist a new culture so long as they can maintain their social network and social status by adhering to old cultural patterns of thinking and acting.
Traditional attempts at culture change focus on crafting communication strategies and getting the language of new cultural value ‘just right.’ Missing in these efforts is a focus on carefully setting up the initiation and self-generated implementation of a new culture on the part of the people that will be needed to exemplify new behavior.
The First Step: Make a Promise
Consider the example of the cultural reality that we continually adopt and reinforce everyday: the American culture of equality. Collectively, the people of the United States forged a new cultural space in 1776 by declaring to the world that “all men are created equal” and established a government to safeguard man’s rights.
The United States made a promise to the world to safeguard the equality of men. It is interesting, but not surprising, to note that much of the justifiable criticism levied on the actions of the United States throughout history followed those episodes in which the nation failed to live up to the very promise it itself had made to the world. The popular history of the U.S. can be seen as the struggle to honor and live up to the promise it made in 1776.
Leaders will recognize the incredible power of an authentic promise. Making a promise ‘in public’ in effect creates a new identity for individuals. Importantly, maintaining the integrity of that new identity in the eyes of one’s peers (i.e., ‘fitting into’ the new cultural space of one’s social network) requires new action; the very kind leaders are looking for in a new culture.
The Second Step: Establish a Relationship of Integrity
It is not enough to simply make a promise. When I look at those cultural values that are rigorously adhered to, including; discipline in Army units, politeness in Japan, and decorum in legal courtrooms, there always exists a strong feedback mechanism to regulate behavior.
In modern day organizations new cultures can be maintained by having people create relationships of integrity with another person. Inside this relationship, people can reflect on the degree to which they have been acting consistent with the new culture, account for moments in which they do not, and identify new places they can embody the new culture.
When one has created a relationship of integrity with another person the quality of your relationship (and in a small sense, the quality of your social network) is a function of you honoring the new culture you have promised.
Culture change can begin with you.
Culture change is not easy. The bigger and older the organization, the more patterns of thinking and acting are ingrained in people as simply ‘the way we do things around here.’ Nevertheless, even an individual can initiate culture change by asking the following:
- What can I as an individual promise to my colleagues that would create a new culture around me?
- To whom can I be accountable for ensuring I act consistent with that new culture?
It is in the universal need to be accepted by others and to live up to the promises we make to those around us that can be the catalyst for rapid culture change.