The five keys to changing an organization’s culture

Dysfunctional organizations include those that are highly competitive, passive-aggressive or overly compliant. Such behaviors inhibit productivity and employee engagement and need to change.  BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D. | CEO, Center for Human Systems Changing an organization’s culture or a team’s norms is not something to take lightly. An organization’s culture is the pattern of […]

The five keys to changing an organization’s culture
Dysfunctional organizations include those that are highly competitive, passive-aggressive or overly compliant. Such behaviors inhibit productivity and employee engagement and need to change. 

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D. | CEO, Center for Human Systems

Changing an organization’s culture or a team’s norms is not something to take lightly. An organization’s culture is the pattern of how it routinely behaves, much like the personality of a human being. Healthy cultures support high levels of productivity and engagement. Dysfunctional cultures do the opposite.

Dysfunctional cultures include those that are highly competitive, passive-aggressive or overly compliant. Such behaviors inhibit productivity and employee engagement and need to change.

However, the cultures of organizations resist change. The human need for belonging drives people to conform to even dysfunctional cultures. Because they are human, too, leaders find it difficult to move against prevailing norms.

Regardless, leaders who follow five key strategies can make a significant impact.

1. Leaders must behave consistently with the culture they desire

Leaders must consistently talk the talk and walk the talk. People follow their leaders for better or for worse. Announcements, speeches, and memoranda have little impact if the leader is not walking their talk.

The leader who wants a culture of openness and honesty but is unwilling to own their errors will not see much change. Likewise, the leader who says they value employee engagement but rarely acknowledges employee input will not see much change.

2. Leaders must develop a critical mass of support

Righting dysfunctional cultures is challenging. No leader can do it alone. They must develop a support system to recruit others to join the culture change effort. When that support system reaches critical mass, the change will have achieved initial success. Leaders also need support to keep them from being seduced by the culture they want to change.

3. Leaders must ensure the goals and values of the desired culture are clear

Clarity about the values of the desired culture is critical to successful change efforts. Organizations with highly productive, engaging cultures that retain key employees prioritize four key values.

  1. Collaboration is more important than being right.
  2. Long-term gains are more important than short-term gains.
  3. People and teams are as important as operational and financial considerations.
  4. Learning from conflict is more important than conflict avoidance.

These four values are essential as they create employee engagement. They are not the only areas of concern. Values around work ethic and productivity must also be included.

Such values and priorities are best clarified and refined through small and large group dialogues. Discussions should also include how to maintain those values in situations where being expedient would be tempting.

4. Leaders must communicate metrics related to the culture change as frequently as operational metrics

An organization’s teams and individuals will attend to the priorities that are given the most attention. Metrics and conversations about desired culture behaviors must be as frequent as production rates and sales.

To firmly establish desired values and behaviors, feedback loops about the desired culture must be as frequent as other priorities.

5. Leaders must establish accountability and consequences that support the desired culture

Like feedback loops, the behavior of people and teams will move toward those that are consistently and frequently rewarded. They move away from behaviors that are consistent and frequently penalized.

Rewards can and should include verbal and financial appreciation. Informal acknowledgment is as vital as official recognition.

Penalties can range from gentle reminders for occasional lapses to invoking progressive discipline processes for consistent lapses. No accountability and no consequences signal that the desired change is not essential.

In summary, how well leaders implement the five strategies determines if a new organizational culture is sustainable. Leaders who follow the five strategies below will find success.

  1. Walk their talk
  2. Develop a critical mass of support
  3. Clearly communicate the new values they desire
  4. Develop feedback loops for the desired change that are as frequent as those for other priorities
  5. Ensure that the organization holds individuals and teams accountable for behaving or not behaving in concert with the new values

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist with 45 years of experience with various people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization and “Power, The Infinite Game with Donald Klein.

Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

Contact Dr. Broom for coaching and consulting for your organization at michael@chumans.com. For more information on the Center for Human Systems and to check out its intensive programs and two-hour workshops, visit chumans.com. You’ll be surprised by the difference a single hour can make!