If I had a penny for each dollar companies have wasted in massive culture change initiatives, I’d be a rich woman. I just don’t get it. I understand that changing an IT system is complex and expensive. I know that changing a manufacturing line is capital intensive.  I get that changing the brand of an organization costs a fortune (how many half-full boxes of business cards have you thrown out after the font or pantone of your company logo changed?).  But 20 years into my consulting career, I am still flummoxed by the amount of money companies spend thinking they can pay to change their culture.

If you subscribe to the old definition of organizational culture as “the way we do things around here,” then what you’re trying to change is behavior. Given that you can’t change someone else’s behavior directly, let’s think about what you can do that will actually change the culture of your team, your division, or your organization.

  1. Change what you pay attention to. The best tool for changing culture is to change what you pay attention to. If your culture is sagging, ask each person you see about the most exciting thing they’re working on. If you’re moving to a customer-centric culture, ask how each decision will be perceived by the customer. Have one question you ask every single person you bump into. Stick to it relentlessly. They will pay attention to what you pay attention to. If you’re the CEO, this will work quickly. If you’re the receptionist, it will take longer, but it will still be effective.
  2. Change what you recognize and reward. Humans are pretty simple. We do things that get reinforced. If you’re trying to create a collaborative culture, stop rewarding the lone wolf who delivers once again. Only call out the projects that involve cooperation among multiple people. If you’re trying to create a performance culture, stop rewarding people who put in a lot of effort but didn’t get the result.
  3. Be explicit about changing expectations. If there are behaviors that used to be rewarded that are now verboten, be clear that the rules have changed. If your culture used to be all about consensus but now to you want greater autonomy and decisiveness, be clear that you are comfortable with people being left out of many decisions. When the excluded grumble, tell them that you are willing to pay the price to increase agility.
  4. Give direct feedback to hold outs. It will be very difficult for people who succeeded in the old culture to let go of the approaches that made them successful. Take every opportunity to set a new expectation. If you’re trying to empower employees, remind the heroic leader that when he jumped in to fix the problem, he missed an opportunity for his people to learn to solve the issue. Granted, this is harder to do if you’re not a manager, but give it a try anyway.
  5. Change how you communicate. Language is very powerful in creating and reinforcing culture. Vet a few of your emails, presentations, or speeches with a neutral party. Tell them how you’re trying to evolve the culture and see if they can find words or phrases that betray your cause.
  6. Change who you spend time with. The people you associate with have a big influence on your thinking. If you know how you want to culture to change, spend more time with the exemplars of the new culture. If you want your company to make more evidence-based decisions, have coffee with the data analysts once a week. If you’re trying to create a sales culture, visit the field and talk with the salesforce about what gets in the way of selling.

New systems won’t change your culture.  New policies won’t change your culture. And fancy consultants will most definitely not change your culture.

New lenses, new questions, new language, new conversations, new expectations; that’s what will change your culture.  Those are in your hands.  And they are 100% free!

What other 100% free culture change tactics can you add to the list? Share them in the comments.

Further Reading

Killing your Busy Culture

Mistakes Team Leaders Make: Culture of Fear

Exercise: Exposing Reactions to Change

5 Responses to Culture is the cheapest thing to change

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