One of the biggest impediments to culture change is focusing on culture change. Culture change is a concept. It’s too big and too hard to get your head around. What you need is less concept and more context. Start with a business problem, where changes in behavior can have a big impact. Make sure there’s a link back to business goals, strategies and results. For example, improving the way we talk to and relate to customers keeps them happy and loyal and likely to recommend us. We can measure the results of the behavior change and not just the behaviors.
In addition to the business payoff, there must also be a personal payoff. In the case of customer service, it’s not just the customer who has a good experience, the customer service person has one as well. When I make you happy, it makes me happy. That’s just how it works. The way you change the culture is one positive customer conversation at a time. The more I try out the new behavior and see that it works – for both me and the customer, the more likely I am to continue to use it. When other people around me see that my approach works, they’re more likely to follow suit. The more people who change their behavior and get good results, the more likely it is to become a cultural norm.
This is a very different approach from a mandate that tells people exactly how they’re supposed to act with customers. I can tell you to great each person using their name or smile or ask them about their day or whatever, but if I’m not able to see the results or impact of that behavior, then the behavior change is likely to look awkward and inauthentic and it won’t last. As Ed Schein says, it’s the feedback from the environment that makes the difference, not the boss’s feedback.
“People are working with the illusion that if they change behavior that they have changed the culture when all they have really done is change the behavior. If that behavior is in fact liked better by people and producing better results, then in the people’s heads it migrates into ‘Oh, that really is a better way of doing it’; and if a lot of people now are having that feeling ‘Yes, it’s fun to be nicer to patients’ and that continues to work, then someone walking into that hospital [workplace] will experience it as the culture because it’s there, everyone is doing it, and it has stability. That stability comes from the feedback from the environment, not from the boss saying you are doing it right now.”
Here’s another example. Let’s say you’re trying to move toward a more collaborative culture, where people willingly share knowledge and work together on solutions. You have lots of tools and technology that help make it easy to do so. Managers communicate that each person is required to contribute to the knowledge vault, participate in discussions and make use of existing knowledge and expertise. Metrics are in place and used in performance assessments.
You’ve seemingly done everything right, but after a year, there is little change to the culture. Most people fulfilled their requirements – they added to the knowledge base, they participated in discussions, they talked to the experts. They did what you asked them to do, but it didn’t have the effect you expected. What happened?
This is a real story from my own experience and one that took me several tries before I really understood what went wrong and what I needed to change. The first thing that was missing, or not integrated well, was a specific context, a specific business problem or goal. The focus was on the behavior and not the results. We asked people to demonstrate knowledge sharing and collaboration behaviors and we measured behaviors, not the results of those behaviors.
Who cares that I added a bunch of stuff to the knowledge base or brainstormed with other people about a particular technique. The real question is did it actually help us solve a problem or improve performance? Once we added the context – in this case by presenting a real problem and asking for help solving it, people began to focus on solving the problem, and in so doing realized the best way to solve the problem was to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. They saw the value in looking at how other people, both inside and outside the organization, had solved similar problems, the value of multiple perspectives and how working together to assess and test different approaches produced a better result.
There was also the feel good side of this approach. If I can’t see the value of what my manager asks me to do, I may still do it, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of fulfillment. Working with a team and seeing how my contribution helped solve a real business problem with real impact, provides a much greater dose of feel good chemicals, which means I’m a whole lot more likely to do it again in the future.
In terms of actually changing the culture, again we do this one experience at a time. As an individual, I’m far more likely to repeat the behaviors that made me feel good. As an observer witnessing the successes of other people, I’m a lot more likely to follow suit. Over time, this is how you change the culture.