Culture eats strategy for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner.
If you want to understand how things get done around your organisation, look no further than the culture. It's what binds us and guides us. It's who we are and who we aspire to be. Is it the great competitive advantage it should be? Or is it a liability?
Culture is powerful and can be a huge force for good in any organisation, connecting people and enabling great work to be done. But culture is not a static entity. Whether through merger or acquisition, business transformation or natural evolution, culture must be agile enough to grow with the organisation.
How do I activate a new culture?
When there is a significant change in any organisation, there is a natural tendency for people to live in the cultural past, clinging to what they know and some reluctance to embrace what might feel like an uncertain future. In fact, 25% of executives cite lack of cultural cohesion as the primary reason why mergers fail*.
Culture can be an elusive thing, and you certainly know when it's not firing on all cylinders. So, in the midst of change, "how" can culture be a force for good?
Purpose: having a shared belief in why the organisation has chosen this journey is a powerful connective force. This is much deeper than having a purpose or vision statement that is communicated to everyone. Rather, it's an iterative process where the organisation's strategy is connected by each individual to why they choose to work here.
Relationships: this is often overlooked, and is an incredibly powerful act at all levels of any organisation. Enabling people to reach out and connect as people, as colleagues, all in the same boat, will break down barriers and support new ways of working.
Trust: where several different cultures have come together, people are likely to form cultural factions aligned to their old part of the organisation. As things shift and change these allegiances become stronger, and many are reluctant to let them go. Fostering trust at all levels of the organisation is the key to enabling people to feel safe, put the past down, and move forward
In summary, activating these "how" elements supports individuals to connect in an authentic and personal way to the organisation's new direction. This powerfully connects them to the new culture that is emerging, and importantly they feel part of it, that they are co-creating it, rather than being a passenger or merely along for the ride.
* McKinsey & Company
How do I connect people using culture?
A shared sense of culture can be a potent force that unites people. It has long been acknowledged that culture, when in the right place, offers a competitive advantage. 69% of organisations that adapted ways of working amid the COVID-19 pandemic say culture offers a competitive advantage*.
If you want to use culture to connect people, there are some key "how" levers to pay attention to:
Authenticity: pay close attention to any say-do gaps (the difference between what is said and what is done) that have opened up with regards to culture as there can be lip service paid that doesn't translate into people's lived experience. Say-do gaps erode trust and connection. Seek to close them as your highest priority wherever possible.
Curiosity: It's likely that there are many micro-cultures at work within teams and different parts of the organisation, some will be aligned with the overall culture, and others verging on toxic. Be curious about areas of under-performance that can't be explained. Could there be a damaging micro-culture at work here?
Fellowship: as humans, we are hard wired to desire connection and fellowship with each other. This is something to be developed, fostering 'hot coals' in pockets of the organisation as you desire. Push on open doors where you can see signs of growth and these areas of warmth will spread gradually through the organisation.
It's not enough to plant a seed of culture and walk away; culture deserves regular nurturing in order to thrive. In the same way, your culture won't connect people overnight, and it won't happen just by giving the organisation tools to foster connection.
In summary, culture must be backed up by authentic experiences every day. Connecting people using culture relies on congruence between what the organisation says and what it does. If these are aligned people will feel it, trust it, and connect to it.
* PWC Global Culture Survey, 2021
How do I change a toxic culture?
If culture can give an organisation a competitive advantage, a toxic culture will have the opposite and deeply corrosive effect. In fact, people are 10x more likely to resign if the workplace culture is toxic*. Recognition of a toxic culture must happen at the top otherwise nothing can be different. The question is, "how"?
Honesty: the first crucial step is to face the truth of where you are with curiosity, not judgement. Dig deeper than engagement surveys by creating a safe environment where people can share how things are for them. This is likely to uncover some unpalatable truths. Face into this without minimising or seeking to excuse it, and to acknowledge its impact.
Courage: from a place of honesty you will understand what needs to be different and can take action. This will feel uncertain and risky. Leadership is a good place to focus, setting the tone at the top, supporting people to understand that every senior leader has made a contribution to the culture being what it is.
Support: it is at the manager/leader layer of the organisation that change must happen for things to be different, and it is here where people must have the unwavering support to do things differently. Maintaining an adult space here is crucial, putting the accountability for action onto each individual.
In summary, there is no quick fix for a toxic culture. It will have taken time to develop and will take time to change. But as the fog of toxicity clears, new horizons will open up for the organisation. How will you know you've turned a corner? You will see better performance, reduced staff turnover, increased revenue, and innovation on the rise.
* Sloan Management Review, 2022
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