Culture plays an integral role in your organization’s success or failure. Learn a four-step process to create a new culture or change an existing one.
Cultures are patterns of human interaction that define the values and the behaviors that help groups accomplish a shared mission. In an organization, the culture is the soup in which work gets done. It influences employee satisfaction, customer retention, and the bottom line.
Getting organizational culture right is complicated, but it can mean the difference between a flourishing organization and a floundering one. Defining an organization’s culture and bringing awareness to the vital role it plays is a big step to shifting productivity and positivity and to increasing customer satisfaction. Yet organizations are often like fish swimming in polluted water, unaware of the unhealthy environment that surrounds them.
Undefined unconscious cultural norms are hidden forces that encourage the worst of human nature. Put any group of ambitious people together in a hierarchical structure with sizable goals and a good salary, and you’re sure to see an outbreak of competitiveness, cliquey behavior, distrust, jealousy, and resentment. Competition overshadows collaboration, individual egos trump collective goals, and ambition outshines curiosity.
Without an intentional approach to culture, an unconscious culture will slowly emerge in a company or team, influenced by leaders’ personalities, relationships, and the quality of conversations that teams have or don’t have. Some people say, “$#!& happens.” I say, “Culture happens.” It’s not unusual for leaders to wake up one morning and say, “Why are we behaving this way? When did we become so disjointed?”
To fix a broken culture, it’s useful to examine how world-class teams work together and the role conversations play. Those teams typically have two things in common: they name and live in a purposeful culture, and they’re headed by leaders who make culture a primary concern and who create a psychologically safe environment where everyone has a voice and participates in dynamic conversations aligned with the team’s mission. Collaboration and creativity are essential elements in the success of those teams.
Changing a culture isn’t easy, but it’s required work for an organization that wants to realize its potential. External eyes and ears can often help teams uncover blind spots or patterns of unproductive behavior.
Here’s a four-step process to create a new culture or change an existing one:
Define a Desired Culture for the Coming Year
Have purposeful conversations to define a culture that will support your mission. Keep it simple. Long cultural treatises or big, clichéd posters won’t do the trick. Name a few values that begin to shape the rules of engagement. Name qualities you believe in (e.g., integrity, humility, psychological safety, respect for unique voices, or accountability). These values are the first step in discovering an appropriate culture. Here are a couple examples of value statements: “Our culture values transparency, collaboration, accountability, and excellence,” or “Our culture is based on individual creativity, team collaboration, and innovation.”
Have a Brutally Honest Look at the Current Culture
It takes time and effort to uncover the hidden forces driving unproductive behavior. Have a conversation to uncover the hidden patterns of behavior, and ask yourselves these questions:
- Do we suffer from groupthink?
- Is our hierarchy suffocating?
- Do we allow for constructive disagreements?
- How do we behave when things go awry?
These are tough conversations to have, to say the least, but without an honest investigation, you won’t discover or execute a new culture.
Explore the Gap Between the Desired State and the Future Desired Culture
Investigating the gap will uncover aspects that are working and those that aren’t. The gap points to the practices you will need to put into place. Every member of the team will have a role to play. Support one another, but also hold one another accountable in a nonjudgmental way.
Change Up Your Conversation
Consciously changing the pattern of our conversations takes practice and humility. Focus on your meetings. Change up your agendas to make time for better collaboration and creative thinking. In business, we’re addicted to stating opinions, telling stories, and making decisions. When we jump into action, we lose the ability to have collaborative and creative conversations. That leap to action is a “conversational bypass.” The hierarchy is obvious when the person with the most stripes is consistently the most powerful voice in the room, and when the members of a team are reluctant to offer differing perspectives, innovative solutions are lost.
Team members who have collaborative conversation have learned to hold their opinions lightly and to listen to and absorb other perspectives. Teams that set aside time in meetings to “chew” on a subject are engaging in such conversations. In any meeting, robust collaboration outshines report-out. Teams get smart together when they feel safe to speak up, disagree, and wrestle with ideas.
Creative conversations are byproducts of robust collaborative conversations. When team members have open minds, a world of infinite possibilities opens up. Fresh approaches to long-standing problems bubble up to the surface, which excites new energies that lead to unforeseen solutions.
Any leader’s efforts to make culture an asset to a team will reap the benefits: clarity of values, explicit rules of engagement, much improved collaborations, and cross-functional alignment. Those new values can start a virtuous circle that can have a profound impact on an organization, so let the conversations begin.
Chuck Wisner is a strategic thinker, coach, and teacher in the areas of organizational strategy, human dynamics, communication, and leadership excellence. He is currently working as an advisor with leaders and their teams at major technology companies in the United States, other Fortune 200 companies, and non-profit institutions. Wisner is the author of the forthcoming book, Conscious Conversations. (CLICK HERE to learn more).
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