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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Executive Summary: Culture

quick overview of how to implement rapid culture change based on a behavioral (not values) approach

by N. Dean Meyer

Book: Culture

Culture is "the way we work around here." It may be broadly defined as the values, attitudes, feelings, beliefs, behavioral patterns, habits, practices, rituals, and taboos that people in an organization share.

Culture has pervasive and profound impacts on the performance of an organization, as well as on staff's quality of work-life. Thus, getting the culture right is an important responsibility of leadership.

Two Aspects to Culture

The various attributes of culture can be sorted into two categories:

  • Values, attitudes, feelings, beliefs

  • Behaviors, habits, practices, rituals, taboos

Values guide behaviors.

But the converse is true as well. When behaviors change, values ultimately come into alignment (to resolve the cognitive dissonance).

Change either, and the other falls in line.

So what's the best way to go about changing an organization's culture?

Traditional Approaches

One traditional approach to organizational culture defines acceptable values. Examples include:

  • Integrity and trust
  • Respect
  • Creativity
  • Customer focus
  • Teamwork
  • Quality

Another common approach is to prescribe feelings and attitudes. For example, the Zappos culture includes:

  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble

Zappos' culture is also defined by its goals (outcomes):

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  • Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less

Pros and Cons of Traditional Approaches

The advantages of these approaches is that they're brief. They consist of a few high-level phrases that fit on a poster or coffee mug.

And they may be inspiring. These are things we all like and desire in our work environment.

But there's a big down-side. These traditional approaches to culture are not actionable.

Thus, they're difficult to teach. New employees stub their toes trying to fit in. And people develop different interpretations of what it takes to comply, leading to inconsistent implementation.

They're also difficult to measure. Thus, hiring and performance appraisal decisions may be somewhat arbitrary. And it's tough to enforce compliance.

The intangibility of these traditional approaches can lead to a cult of insiders who claim to know the culture, and outsiders who struggle to learn what these insiders struggle to articulate.

Organizations that try to change culture by prescribing values, attitudes, and feelings are the ones who say, "It takes a generation to change culture."

There's a reason they say this: This is not a practical method of change.

When you tell your staff, "We value teamwork," but their peers aren't willing to help, does teamwork improve? Do bosses even have the right to tell people what to value?

"You can't legislate the human heart."

When you're feeling sad and someone says, "Try to feel better," do you feel better? Does it do any good to dictate attitudes and feelings?

If you don't know any other way to change culture, what can you do? Some say, "It's all about hiring people who fit." They eliminate candidates who would learn their culture if only given a chance. Of course, you can't turn away so many qualified candidates unless you pay at the high end of market.

The bottom line: Attempting to change culture by preaching values, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs is generally ineffective (and can be costly).

Behavioral Approach

Instead of promoting values, consider "behaviorism" (a branch of learning theory).

We've all heard the saying, "Never criticize the child. Criticize the behavior." That's a manifestation of behaviorism.

"Don't try to tell me what to think.
I'll take your orders about work,
but not what to think!"
Montgomery Clift to John Wayne
in Red River, 1948

From Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner through modern-day Cognitive Behavioral Therapy -- whether it's child development, skills training, or adult addiction therapy -- the behavioral approach has proven to be an effective method of change.

A behavioral approach to organizational culture focuses on actional principles, phrased as, "We do this."

Example, trust....

Simply telling people to trust one another (a feeling) is not likely to have any significant impact, no matter how many posters you plaster around the workplace. Nor are the statements like, "We value trust," or "We are trustworthy," likely to make it so.

Instead, consider the following behavior: "We make no commitments that we cannot keep, and we keep every commitment."

This clear, direct, actionable principle causes people to act in a trustworthy manner.

Once behaviors change, values and attitudes generally follow. In this example, once people behave in a trustworthy manner, they will learn to trust one another.

Example, entrepreneurship....

One of the major challenges facing many organizations is to convert a bureaucratic culture into an entrepreneurial culture.

In a bureaucracy, people are given a set of resources and manage them as best they can. Bureaucrats get ahead by building empires.

In an entrepreneurial culture, the opposite is true. Entrepreneurs run businesses, and focus on delivering products (i.e., results). Entrepreneurs abhor overhead (the bureaucrat's empire), and always try to do the most with the least.

Within organizations, entrepreneurship means continually thinking about what it takes to keep your business-within-a-business competitive and your customers happy, and behaving with the same initiative and caring as if the business were your own.

While you can't demand that people care about the business, the specific behaviors of entrepreneurs can be described as part of an organizational culture.

For example, leaders might say, "We proactively seek new opportunities to better serve our customers by improving existing products and developing our capability to deliver new products."

And by adopting actionable behaviors, people naturally learn to see their jobs in a new light.

Pros and Cons of the Behavioral Approach

Behaviors are tangible. They're effective as a method of change for three reasons:

  1. They're easy to teach. You can use familiar skills training methods to teach staff the desired behaviors.

  2. They're easy to model. When leaders practice the behaviors, it's easy for everyone to see and imitate them.

  3. They're easy to measure. You can't measure values or feelings; but you can certainly measure compliance with behaviors.

The result: With a behavioral approach, we've seen massive change in culture in large organizations in less than a year.

There is one disadvantage: A list of desired behaviors is more lengthy -- typically 20 or more pages when printed.

It's not something that fits on a poster or coffee mug. It looks more like a handbook, a pragmatic tool that guides people on how to approach diverse situations.

One organization printed their behavioral principles as a pocket-booklet. Whenever their executive was asked about how to handle a challenging situation, he'd pull out the booklet and say, "Let's see what our culture says about that...."

That leader was sending two strong signals: 1) I care about our culture. 2) Our culture is a practical tool (not shelf-ware).

The behavioral approach to culture takes a bit of work; but it works!

13 Themes

A comprehensive definition of organizational culture addresses these themes:
[Click on the Theme to see its definition.]

  • Ethics: knowing right from wrong

    Ethics is the foundation of an organization's culture, defining what is considered the "right" way to do business. Ethics establishes the basic morals of the organization, and helps people avoid inappropriate or destructive behavior.

    Many corporations have a Code of Ethics that can be used as a basis for this theme. Even so, it's often helpful to define ethics in more detail (particularly if corporate policies are not distributed to everyone, or if they are not clear and actionable).

    Ethics guide us to avoid conflicts of interests, i.e., anything that could be perceived as using our position for personal profit. For example, "We do not hold financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance of our duties."

    Ethics defines our fiduciary responsibilities, i.e., using the corporation's resources wisely. For example, "We do not waste or abuse the organization's resources (including our own on-the-job time) or our benefits (eg, sick leave)."

    The Ethics theme also addresses discrimination of all types, following the law and the corporation's policies, and avoiding anything that might be harmful to others or to the organization.

  • Integrity: inspiring trust

    Integrity guides us to behave in ways which inspire people to trust us.

    Trust is essential for people to work together. The organization must inspire the trust of its clients to earn the right to do business with them.

    Furthermore, groups within an organization must trust one another before they will cooperate on project teams. Without trust, people would rather do the work themselves, replicating others' skills and building empires, than risk depending on others. Hence, integrity is prerequisite to teamwork.

    Within the theme of Integrity are two sub-themes, both of which are critical to earning trust: the way we communicate, and the way we handle commitments.

    On the topic of communications, the Integrity theme includes being truthful, communicating openly without deception, and speaking only about what we know.

    On the topic of commitments, the Integrity theme describes how to fulfill every commitment, beginning with making thoughtful commitments that can be met.

    The Integrity theme translates these values into clear principles of conduct such as, "We estimate costs and time frames to be realistic (neither inflated nor overly optimistic), based on the data available at the time;" and, "When someone demands something we cannot do, we say no (and offer feasible options) rather than say yes and then fail."

  • Interpersonal Relations: working well with other people

    People in organizations are required to work with many others in ever-changing relationships. Getting along with others can be difficult amidst pressures to increase productivity and deliver results faster.

    With that understood, it's imperative that people do treat others well, both to work well together and to provide a supportive environment that encourages individual success.

    The Interpersonal Relations theme describes in detail how we treat others.

    It addresses how we communicate, including treating others with respect and freely sharing knowledge and communicating new ideas. For example, the behavior, "We proactively communicate information that we believe has value to others," helps everyone identify business opportunities, as well as brings focus to problems before they become crises.

    It also addresses how we receive communications, actively listening to others' views. The cultural principle, "We don't discredit a concept because it was presented poorly," ensures that people's good ideas are given a fair chance to benefit the organization.

    The net effect is open communication across the organization, creating a "learning organization" capable of continual improvement.

    The Interpersonal Relations theme also describes how we critique others, handle disagreements, and correct problems.

  • Meetings: effective scheduled business events

    The Meetings theme defines when and how to conduct scheduled business events.

    Many organizations experience a great deal of frustration with non-productive meetings. Addressing meeting behaviors as part of culture can result in immediate and widely valued improvements.

    "We are going to keep having these meetings every day until I find out why
    no work is getting done!"
    quote from an actual meeting

    For example, it is important that meeting attendees respect each other's time. Behaviors such as, "We are prompt to arrive and reconvene from breaks," and, "We call for a decision as soon as further discussion seems unproductive," ensure that people make the best use of their meeting hours.

    Meeting behaviors need not be restricted to the behaviors of attendees. It's also important to define the expected actions of someone who misses a meeting. For example, "We accept accountability for catching up with everything we missed."

    The Meetings theme thoroughly covers how to schedule, prepare for, participate in, and follow up on business meetings, and may even include techniques for making decisions by consensus and for bringing clarity and closure to confusing issues.

  • Cooperation: working as one organization

    In an organization, individual success depends on the success of one's peers. The Cooperation theme describes how people within an organization avoid internal conflict and support one another.

    It's easy to say that an organization is one big happy family, but this facade quickly fades when one group steps on another's turf or otherwise undermines a peer's business. Internally, groups must complement, not compete with, one another.

    The Cooperation theme addresses internal competition and empire building with specific principles like, "We provide products and services strictly within our domains."

    Beyond just avoiding conflicts, people must help one another succeed. The Cooperation theme describes behaviors such as helping peers by freely passing leads or referrals to one another, by loaning each other resources when appropriate, and by encouraging clients to utilize the services of all groups within the organization.

    If a peer's performance is unsatisfactory, it's tempting to call on external providers -- competitors of the peer group. But this doesn't give the struggling group a chance to improve, or force resolution of the performance issue. The principle, "We work through each other rather than around each other," represents a commitment to investing in everyone's effectiveness rather than letting struggling peers sink.

    In addition to helping peers succeed, people must cooperate rather than work as independent "stovepipes" in order to gain the synergies inherent in being a single organization.

    One aspect of cooperation is appearing as a unified organization to clients, and never undermining others' decisions or reputations. This requires behaviors such as, "Once the appropriate stakeholders make a decision, we all support their decision." In a similar vein, "We do not criticize the organization in front of clients."

  • Teamwork: collaborating on projects and services

    The Teamwork theme focuses on individuals working together on projects, as distinct from Cooperation which applies to everyone in the organization whether they're working together on a project or not.

    Effective teamwork is critically important. If people can't get the help they need from others when they need it, projects will suffer delays.

    Worse, if they can't count on other groups for help, people will be forced to become self-sufficient generalists. They'll have to hire more people (building an inefficient empire) to do everything within their own independent groups.

    An organization of "jacks of all trades" will never be as effective as one in which specialists bring all the right skills together to accomplish results.

    Culture should guide each group to concentrate on being the best at its distinct expertise, while teaming with other specialists for the good of clients and the organization as a whole.

    The Teamwork theme helps people understand when to get help from other groups, guiding staff to include on every team just the right people at just the right time. For example, "We buy services (that are not within our own domain) from others within the organization whenever it would be helpful to us (i.e., whenever they can do the work better than us, and hence improve the value of our products), and whenever doing the work ourselves might jeopardize others' ability to conduct their business in the future."

    Of course, teamwork depends on others being available to help you. This requires behaviors such as, "When contracting with customers, we commit only our own groups. If subcontracts are required, we gain the agreement of our internal suppliers (team members) before the contract with our customer is finalized."

    Once formed, effective collaboration requires more than just goodwill and good working relationships. The Teamwork theme also guides staff to specify both clear individual accountabilities and a clear chain of command within the team. This allows the team to resolve any differences without the need for escalation to a common authority. For example, "When we invite other groups onto project teams, we agree on their unique accountabilities and form clear internal contracts."

    It also defines how to help teammates succeed without overstepping our bounds and disempowering others.

    The result: Teams should be self-forming and self-managing, supporting both collaboration and individual empowerment and accountability.

  • Empowerment: authorities and accountabilities match

    Leaders can no longer afford to be bottlenecks for decision making. The huge variety of decisions to be made is more than a small group of people at the top can handle. The expertise required, the sheer number of decisions to be made, and the short windows of opportunity presented in today's competitive environment make empowerment a necessity, not an option.

    Unfortunately, the term "empowerment" has been used in so many different contexts that its meaning has become blurred. A precise definition is needed.

    Empowerment means matching authority to accountability, and managing results rather than tasks. It gives people the freedom to think creatively about how to do their jobs, and the resources they need to succeed.

    Even if understood, it takes more than a concept to get bosses to manage without micro-managing, and to get people to accept accountability along with authority. The behaviors described in the Empowerment theme ensure that accountabilities are clear, and that authority levels always match those accountabilities.

    In practice, empowerment either does or does not occur every time an assignment is given. The key is how we behave when asking things of others, and what we do when others ask things of us.

    For example, empowering behaviors include asking others for results without dictating the tasks that are to be performed to produce those results. Of course, when asking for results, "We provide the authorities, resources, and information needed to deliver the results."

    In addition, the Empowerment theme explores the use of alternative work times and places, explains how to deal with problems without disempowering staff, and defines the difference between empowerment and scapegoating.

    It also includes guidance on keeping supervisors informed, seeking coaching, and taking responsibility for your own career and professional development.

  • Customer Focus: pleasing customers

    Successful organizations know that the only way to stay in business is to satisfy their customers. They are, by nature, customer focused.

    Customer focus means aligning an organization's efforts with the unique strategies and needs of its customers, and pleasing customers with its style of interactions.

    With regard to alignment, customer-focused organizations listen respectfully to their customers and respect customers' prerogatives.

    They never presume to know what is best for their customers. Rather, they follow the principle, "Out of respect for our customers' knowledge of their businesses, we do not do what we think is 'best for the company' or 'best for our customer's customers' (second guessing our customers). We help our customers succeed with their missions as they perceive them by serving their expressed needs."

    Instead of deciding what's best for others, a customer-focused organization offers functional alternatives at different price points and provides customers with all the information they need to make intelligent purchase decisions.

    Customer-focused organizations deploy products only when a customer agrees to buy them, and tailor solutions to satisfy their customers' most pressing strategic needs.

    As to the style of interaction, the Customer Focus theme describes specific behaviors such as, "We never waste our customers' time (eg, by being late or unprepared for meetings, by making customers wait too long in line, by requiring excessive paperwork, or by presenting information that doesn't interest them)."

    In addition, customer-focused organizations proactively invest in strong partnerships with their customers, and serve them rather than attempt to control them.

    This theme also provides guidance on responding to customers' inquiries, when to refuse customers' requests, keeping customers informed, soliciting feedback, and respecting customers' ownership of the products they've bought from the organization.

  • Entrepreneurship: remaining competitive

    Converting a bureaucratic culture into an entrepreneurial culture is a major challenge facing many organizations.

    In a bureaucracy, people are given a set of resources and manage them as best they can. Entrepreneurs run lines of business, and find ways to serve their customers by acquiring whatever resources are needed to satisfy funded customer requirements.

    Bureaucrats think in terms of following procedures and performing tasks. Entrepreneurs focus on delivering products (i.e., results), and are empowered to perform any tasks and utilize any processes needed to get the job done.

    Bureaucrats get ahead by playing within other peoples' rules and by building empires. In an entrepreneurial culture, the opposite is true. Entrepreneurs abhor overhead, and always try to do the most with the least.

    Entrepreneurship means continually thinking about what it takes to keep a "business within a business" competitive and its customers happy. It also means behaving with the same initiative and caring as if the business were your own.

    While you can't demand that people care about the business, this theme describes how entrepreneurs work. For example, "We proactively seek new opportunities to better serve our customers by improving existing products and developing our capability to deliver new products."

    Of course, if it were your own money at stake, you'd be quick to subscribe to the principle, "We are frugal, and spend the organization's resources only on wise investments (when returns justify costs and risks)."

    When problems arise, entrepreneurs "seek solutions, rather than excuses, with a 'can do' attitude."

    The Entrepreneurship theme also guides people in managing lines of business (rather than managing tasks), improving their value to customers, leveraging physical and intellectual capital, utilizing vendors and contractors to expand supply and to offer better value, being pleasant to do business with, and earning market share.

  • Contracts: making commitments that can be kept

    The Contracts theme addresses internal commitments (not agreements with external vendors).

    As staff interact with their internal customers (both clients and peers), they make commitments to deliver their products and services. These commitments can be considered agreements, or "contracts," which define each group's accountabilities.

    A discipline of clear contracting (explicitly agreeing on commitments) is extremely healthy. But it requires learning some new behaviors. The Contracts theme lays out the rules and explains how to form clear mutual agreements.

    It explains when contracts are needed, and when groups can work on their own initiative without a contract. For example, "No contract is needed if no customer purchase decision is involved."

    It defines the level of detail, and what goes in an internal contract. For example, "We form a separate contract for each distinct customer purchase decision (eg, a feasibility study, a solution, a specific repair, a service-level agreement for help-desk support)."

    It explains how to culminate agreements. For example, "We finalize contracts only when both parties are prepared to commit to the deliverables and the schedule." This way, each group knows precisely what it's expected to deliver, and everyone understands precisely what all of the other groups on a team are to contribute to the project.

    The Contracts theme also defines when to form agreements, the respective roles of internal customers and suppliers, when contracts should be documented in writing, and when they should be renegotiated.

  • Quality: fulfilling commitments well

    The Quality theme concentrates on how an organization fulfills its commitments.

    This theme is not equivalent to Total Quality Management (TQM), which includes a subset of various cultural themes plus other things outside the scope of culture such as metrics. Rather, the cultural theme of Quality focuses specifically on producing highly professional results.

    Quality doesn't always mean the most expensive choices. If an organization offers only "Rolls-Royce" TM solutions, customers who need a "Chevrolet" TM are forced to either pay for more than they need or to buy from the organization's competitors.

    Therefore, the Quality theme distinguishes professionalism (excellence at whatever it is we do) from price point (delivering the highest level of service or the most elaborate product).

    With regard to price point, it offers guidance on helping customers define what they mean by quality. For example, "Since customers may vary in their willingness to pay for perfection, quality does not always mean doing things perfectly; rather, we meet or exceed contracted deliverables within the agreed budget."

    With regard to professionalism, it defines what suppliers can decide without customer input. For example, "We maximize the efficiency and safety of our products to the extent that it doesn't add costs or time (based on excellence in design, not higher feature-value)."

    In addition, "We deliver all the qualities (attributes) of a product necessary to ensure the intended results. (For example, batteries and cables are included.)"

    Quality also includes principles for doing things right the first time and avoiding unnecessary rework, everybody taking responsibility for all aspects of their own quality (there are no "quality police"), and diagnosing the root causes of problems and implementing permanent, systemic fixes.

  • Risk: taking appropriate risks

    Many leaders are concerned that their organizations are too conservative; others may be concerned that staff take risks that are unwise or unwarranted. The Risk theme defines how decisions are made in the face of uncertainty.

    The Risk theme identifies four categories of risk: technological, benefits-realization, project-management, and financial. It determines who makes each type of risk decision (and hence who accepts accountability or credit for results).

    This cultural theme guides people to take judicious risks. For example, within this theme might be a statement like, "When making investment decisions, we evaluate risks throughout the project for all future investments, but ignore past investments." This helps protect the organization from "throwing good money after bad."

    The Risk theme also shows leaders how to encourage an appropriate level of risk-taking. For example, "We evaluate people's decisions, not the outcomes. When people take judicious risks and do everything in their power to succeed, yet fail due to factors beyond their control (i.e., when good decisions result in bad outcomes), we do not treat the lack of results as a performance deficiency."

    In addition, the Risk theme addresses planning for the mitigation of risks, and keeping stakeholders informed of the consequences.

  • Feedback: measuring and improving results

    We assess and reward others' performance through feedback. Feedback guides people to improve, and discourages inappropriate behaviors.

    The principles covered in the Feedback theme are not limited to supervisors. For example, everyone can "provide feedback to one another in a timely manner (including peer reviews)," and "continually measure our results so that we can improve our performance."

    Since everyone's feedback provides signals that guide people's behaviors, it is important for feedback to be timely, fair, and clearly connected to performance.

    Feedback also must be in keeping with other cultural themes. For example, consistent with empowerment, a key concept from the Feedback theme is, "We reward people based on results, not effort."

    The Feedback theme also describes how we deal with performance deficiencies and celebrate successes.

But you can't stop here. These themes are just chapter titles in your culture handbook.

Within each theme, you need to define actionable behaviors that add up to the desired outcome.

Database of Best Practices

A database of behavioral principles in all those themes has been collected and fine tuned. Consider them "best practices" in organizational culture.

This database is part of a comprehensive reference library on culture.

This database is the product of the collective wisdom of dozens of organizations that have been through the Culture in Action process in past decades.

But wait. You can't get your culture out of a book!

This database provides a starting point for leaders who are developing their own unique set of principles. It's not intended as an "off the shelf" culture; rather, it helps leaders word their own ideas clearly, and suggests principles they might want to consider adding to their list.

Implementation Process

Cultural change begins with carefully worded principles of behavior, written in such a way that everybody knows exactly what to do.

These principles are crafted by the organization's leadership team. Through consensus on each principle, they understand the behaviors well enough to teach them; and they commit to personally practicing them, and to implementing the new culture in their groups.

Once they're written, the cultural principles are "rolled out" through a series of training courses or manager-led workshops, one theme at a time.

Our experience is that education is best done in small-group sessions in which people have time to ask questions and fully understand each principle. In these sessions, it helps to translate principles into local practices by discussing what people in that specific group must do differently.

These sessions can also be used to gather staff's feedback and update the principles accordingly. When leaders do this, everybody has participated in the design of the culture.

Education must be reinforced by continued leadership modeling and mentoring, and by incorporating compliance with the new culture into people's performance appraisals.


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