Cultural Change… Amen!

Something occurred at church that reminded me of what often occurs when leaders are trying to change a culture! Our soloist played a song on her guitar and one person started clapping. At first a few people glanced at one another, smiled, but didn’t join in. The individual continued to clap and little by little others joined in. A large number of people started clapping, then some of them dropped off. By the end of the song, over half of people were clapping and smiling. When she finished playing, everyone applauded. Cultural change often has a similar start.

Cultural change may be instigated with an external threat or just the belief that things are not as productive and profitable as they should be. Leaders may make some changes in policy or staff but the desired results evade them. Without a concerted effort and a well communicated strategy little will happen. The process needs to be organized from the top with open two-way communication which needs to be cascaded throughout the organization and behaviors modeled by everyone. Unless that takes place little will change. Here are some strategies that will help to improve the success of a cultural change.

Assessment: Before changes can take place one needs to understand how business is currently accomplished, as this will give leadership a clear picture of areas in need of attention. An informal assessment can be accomplished by just taking stock in how work gets done. What values are apparent in the behavior of your people? How do they communicate? What stories do you overhear about various situations? What aspects of your culture are missing or weak? This alone will help you to determine where to start. In addition, a comprehensive assessment can help to increase your chance of success by determining holes in the current strategy, and perceptions which block progress. Blind spots will undermine a cultural change every time.

Leadership Team: An important part of the process is to get your leadership team on board. Share your vision and then get their ideas about what would need to change in order to bring it to life. Have the team think of what behaviors, attitudes and communication will need to change and the values that will serve as a foundation for the culture. You need your team to be aligned with the vision and willing to reinforce it through consistent behaviors and messages.

Communication: When a leader sees the vision for his or her organization, it is imperative that they transition it out of thought and into reality. They may decide changes have to be made so they start communicating their vision to others. At first, there may be some restraint on the part of others and they may not join in. Why does this happen? Often it occurs out of fear, as people do not know what the changes will mean for them. In other instances they may have had prior experiences with culture changes that were not beneficial. Whatever the reason, open and honest communication is an integral part of the change process.

With persistence often people join in, and have a lot of energy, but over time the newness and energy subsides. Much like my experience in church you get the momentum going by initiating the movement. Then you help get your people get started, and work to keep the momentum going. Know there is a good change the momentum may wain, so find ways keep it alive. When an organization is able to handle the ups and downs of cultural change it can build trust in your team and result in a win!

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