3 Tips for HR Directors to Lead Successful Culture Change

3 Tips for HR Directors to Lead Successful Culture Change
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In a recent blog, I wrote about the daunting challenge facing Human Resources Directors who are tasked with helping their organizations assess and change their cultures. During a workshop on this topic, I explained the tools they could use for diagnosing the values, beliefs and behaviors that make up a company’s culture today and how to determine what these defining attributes should become in the future.

But implementing lasting culture change is far more complex than simply saying: “Let's be more innovative.” Or, as one client said to me: “I want a culture that really delivers results.”

For culture change to work, 3 things need to be in place:

  1. A shared understanding of what the culture is today.
  2. Agreement about what the company’s leadership would like the culture to become in the future.
  3. A process to begin and sustain that transformation, along with ways to monitor, measure and celebrate the successful culture change as it evolves.

If the task of putting these 3 “culture change pillars” in place is being handed off to Human Resources directors, perhaps some of the culture change methods we teach our clients can help them develop a more inclusive approach that engages the entire organization and better ensures that the transformation is actually accomplished.

First, what is organizational culture?

Unique to any kind of human group (regardless of size), organizational culture is the pattern of shared beliefs created as the group learns how to solve problems. These agreed-upon values and practices are then shared with new members and passed on to successive generations of employees.

To really understand these underpinnings of organizational culture, let’s look at both of them individually:

  • Values. These are the underlying assumptions or “truths” shared among people. They are created through what people see, what they learn and the experiences they have. Most of all, these values inform people how to perceive events, analyze new information and emotionally react to new situations.
  • Practices. These are the tangible things people experience in an organization: programs, policies and procedures, roles and responsibilities, expected decorum, even office dress standards. Practices may include language and acronyms, office slang, and how the workspace is designed. As today’s office configurations shift from separate cubicles to wide-open space, workers’ feelings for what they like and don’t like are shifting as well.

Excellent cultural assessment tool: Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument

There are very few well-researched, documented and applied models to assess an organization’s culture as it exists today, much less to identify how it needs to evolve for tomorrow. At my change management consulting firm, we are big fans of the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) developed by Dr. Kim S. Cameron and Dr. Robert E. Quinn from the University of Michigan.

Their research and subsequent book, “Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture,” set forth a systematic process for organizations to use to assess their present culture and to collectively determine how they believe it could be better for the future. Based on Quinn and Rorbaugh’s Competing Values Framework for cultural assessment, the OCAI approach is grounded on extensive research and validation.

Examining the essence of organizational culture, Cameron asks this pertinent question: “How did Southwest Airlines thrive when several of its competitors went belly up (e.g., Eastern, Pan Am, Texas Air, People Express)?” The key ingredient in every case, he explains, is something “less tangible, less blatant, but more powerful than the market factors….The major distinguishing feature in these companies, their most important competitive advantage, the factor that they all highlight as a key ingredient in their success, is their organizational culture.”

He stresses that this culture is sometimes created individually by the founder of the firm (such as Walt Disney), while in other cases, it is consciously developed by management teams who decide to improve their company’s performance in systematic ways (GE). “Simply stated,” Cameron states, “successful companies have developed something special that supersedes corporate strategy, market presence, or technological advantages. They have found the power that resides in developing and managing a unique corporate culture.”

Does your company have that “something special”? If not, do you wish it did?

Make no mistake, in order to compete in today’s—and tomorrow’s—business world, you’d be wise to heed Cameron’s observation and start developing and managing your own unique corporate culture. If you don't know what your company culture is, now is the time to make that Job 1.

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