Seven Deadly Sins of Changing Organisational Culture

By Kevin Dwyer

1. Sorcery - Leaders attempt to change culture with a single magical approach. Whether it is “Lean manufacturing”, “Results based decision making”, “Customer focus” or “Process re-engineering”, leaders attempt to find the silver bullet of changing their culture. Whilst methods of improving quality or focusing on customers or improving efficiency help to give a focus to why we want to change culture, they in themselves, do not change culture.

When a single focus approach is used, a short term improvement in culture is quickly overtaken by a return to the normal way of working.

2. Inadequacy - Leaders do not use enough levers to affect change, seeking to make change happen with a minimalist approach.

A recent tender I saw to change the safety culture of an organisation made it clear that their preferred approach was series of cascading workshops. The workshops began with leaders of the organisation coming to the realisation of what it took to provide leadership on safety and ending with field staff workshops on how they needed to “act safely”. The proposed content of the workshops was good. However, even without being able to assess and evaluate the current culture and working environment, there were at least two levers they should have been using that they seemed perfectly willing to ignore.

One was communication. By communication, I don’t mean a collection of emails exhorting the need for improved safety and toolbox meetings aimed at getting field staff involvement in auditing their workplace. I mean a comprehensive plan that aims to target specific stakeholders with specific messages through specific channels at a frequency that ensures a critical mass of the stakeholders at first feel, then think and then do what it is we want them to. Such a plan may include, but certainly is not limited to, the development of an internal safety brand, use of the intranet, video, toolbox meetings, emails, magazines, inclusion as mandatory items in meeting agendas or workshops.

A comprehensive, internally and externally consistent communication plan, which is measured for its effectiveness and continuously improved, is a must to change something like a safety culture where ingrained values and behaviours exist at all levels of an organisation.

The other element which was missing was performance management. Without there being a consequence for not adhering to the safety culture other than infrequent injury or death; behaviours are unlikely to change.

Attempting to change organisational culture by utilising only one or two levers which can impact human behaviour is unlikely to be successful.

3. Haste - Leaders attempt to change culture in a very short period of time.

Changing culture takes time. It takes time for people to assimilate the messages about the new culture and understand what the change is about and to form an opinion about it. It takes even longer to be able to ensure that their opinion is a positive one. It takes time for people to understand that the new set of values and acceptable behaviours is the norm for all employees and that following that norm is a good thing to do. It also takes time to ensure that employees have the competence and the authority to act in the way that supports the behaviours we seek consistent with our new culture.

Quick fixes in changing culture rarely, if ever, work. It takes time and means that leaders have to be consistent, persistent and insistent over 3-4 years to embed a cultural change.

4. Incoherence Leaders send different signals to their people about what the desired culture looks like.

For example, a leader micromanages the formation of what is supposed to be a culture of empowered staff taking accountability for their goals and responsibility for their tasks. Or a leader drives towards a culture which about delivering service excellence to customers but does not give any authority for frontline staff to resolve customer complaints. Or perhaps a leader intent on creating a culture of innovation does not accept failure as a means of learning.

5. Oppression - Leaders drive mercilessly towards their goal, creating a bullying culture with low levels of empowerment as they do so.

Quite often, a goal of a cultural transformation is empowerment. Unfortunately, it is also evident that many leaders see driving the culture as their reason for being and expect people to be for them or against them. Their conversations are peppered with phrases such as “Get on the bus or get left behind” or “Get transformed or be transferred”. These leaders confuse being insistent on a set of values and behaviours with bullying. Bullying degrades people’s belief in themselves and creates the antitheses of empowerment.

Leaders like this create cultures of top down bullying and bottom up obsequiousness, a recipe for lack of thinking and lack of accountability.

6. Myopia - Leaders lack the vision to bring their people with them.

Changing culture begins with a vision for the future. Leaders must be able to articulate what people will be doing, how they will be behaving and what the results will be for the organisation, its customers its employees and other stakeholders.

Leaders must be able to communicate that vision with passion and using imagery to create pictures in people’s minds and facts to back up both the reason for the change and the rationale for the method being utilised during the change.

7. Apathy - Leaders do not passionately believe in the change.

Leaders who – in that age old worn out truism – talk the talk, but do not walk the walk, will never engender true cultural change.

If leaders do not believe in a change they have been directed to create, they are better served to state their disbelief and move on. It serves no purpose for themselves or for the employees that report to them or to those to who they report, for leaders who do not believe to stay on in their role.

At the very least, if they stay, their tone and pace of voice and body language will betray them; being incongruent with their words. If the leaders appears ambiguous, people will not follow. When leaders do not believe in a change, the probability of failure of the change rises dramatically.

Kevin Dwyer specialises in change management programs that transform organisations through the behaviour of its people. He is Managing Director, Change Factory