The Two Major Pitfalls for Leaders Looking to Manage Culture
Take 90 seconds to view this short, amusing video clip from the popular movie “A Few Good Men.” The witness is testifying in the murder trial of two Marines who are stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The defendants claim they were simply giving the murdered Marine a “code red” – a common, but unsanctioned, exercise where enlisted men and women discipline each other.
This short exchange nicely illustrates the dilemma so many organizations face when attempting to implement major transformations in their businesses. Even though they use change management techniques to document values, policies, procedures, and so forth, people tend to continue to behave in their comfortable patterns and in ways that let them fit into the organization. They “follow the crowd” in terms of how they prioritize and carry out their work and how they collaborate with colleagues. Embedded cultural norms exert a powerful influence over how people behave. And even if an individual sees the potential value in an organizational change, shifting behavior is generally not easy and becomes even harder when peers – and superiors – continue to exhibit the old ways of working. For instance, consider the organization that is looking to accelerate decision making but requires an exorbitant amount of hard-to-obtain data in order to make investments. Or the company that is aiming to become more innovative yet rewards making the numbers – and punishes failure, no matter whether or how new ideas were tested.
Leaders of an organization have a unique and crucial role to play in dealing with this dilemma. As stewards of the organization’s culture, they have the authority – and responsibility – to implement desired shifts in cultural norms. Clearly, this is easier said than done.
There are two major pitfalls for leaders looking to manage culture:
1. Failing to model the new behaviors themselves.
2. Failing to monitor the demonstration of new cultural norms, and to intervene in positive ways when individuals are not behaving in line with the desired norms.
Overcoming these pitfalls is simple, but not easy.
Lay out the aspirational cultural norms – what working in the new environment will feel like – and engage all levels to discuss and refine them in order to gain buy-in for the desired shifts.
Have the leadership team hold each other accountable for modeling the new behaviors. A leadership team that does not “walk the talk” in terms of behaving in line with cultural norms will never elicit followership on the part of the organization and build the “right behaving crowd” for people to follow.
Use every interaction with employees as an opportunity to observe and discuss commitment to cultural aspirations.
When employee behavior is out of line with agreed-upon cultural norms, engage in productive ways to understand the reasons behind the behaviors and to discuss the implications for the organization of these outmoded behaviors. For example, the plant manager at an electric utility observed that some employees were extending their 15-minute breaks to 30 or even 45 minutes. He met with the union stewards and simply said, “We all agreed that we would transform our plant from one of the worst performing ones in the organization to a model of performance by taking ownership of our work and keeping costs down for customers. Help me understand how taking extended breaks fits with this goal?” Everyone agreed there was no good reason for the behavior, and it changed in a matter of days – without using the standard disciplinary process.
Leaders can also choose to accelerate shifting the culture of the organization. Rather than wait for employees to demonstrate – or not demonstrate – the new behaviors in the course of day to day work, leaders can use rapid-paced aggressive efforts like Schaffer Consulting’s Rapid Results projects to create circumstances where people must follow the new cultural norms in order to succeed. For example, a marketing manager who convened a cross-functional team and challenged them to bring a product to market in less than three months immediately created an environment where people had to share information across silos, and decisions had to be made quickly. The team’s successful experience became a “legend” example of the desired culture – showing not only what the new behaviors looked like, but the value they created for the company.
The pressure to “follow the crowd” begins early in childhood and does not end as we become adults and join organizations with performance goals. Instead of ignoring or bemoaning this phenomenon, leaders can use it to drive acceptance of change. By consistently exhibiting the desired behaviors and reinforcing them in others, leaders create “the crowd they want.” This crowd then becomes a powerful social mechanism for self-governance and compliance. Fitting in requires behaving in ways that fit with the aspirational culture. As they set this dynamic in motion, leaders can begin to get the crowd to “manage culture” with them. Peer pressure is not always such a bad thing.
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