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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Culture

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

Book: Culture

  1. What is "corporate culture" or "organizational culture"?

  2. How is culture different from mission and vision?

  3. What kinds of organizational problems (symptoms) can be traced back to culture?

  4. How is organizational culture related to teamwork?

  5. Are discrimination and sexual harassment just a matter of culture?

  6. Isn't culture a product of the people at the top of an organization?

  7. Isn't changing an organization's culture is a long and difficult process?

  8. Can a department within a company change its culture, even if the corporate culture doesn't change?

  9. Do you have to provide foosball and free lunches to change culture?

  10. What are the steps involved in implementing culture change?

Suggest another question and get a personal response....

  1. What is "corporate culture" or "organizational culture"?
  2. Culture is "the way we work around here."

    It includes all the values, attitudes, feelings, beliefs, behavioral patterns, habits, practices, rituals, and taboos that people in an organization share.

    Organizational culture is different than national culture. They generally speak to different things; for example, an organizational culture rarely includes the way guests toast their host at a dinner party. And national culture rarely defines practices as specific as how we effectively team.

    To the extent that they overlap, a strong organizational culture can transcend national culture. Outside the office, people may behave one way; but at work they may adopt the company's practices. For example, in some cultures, "face" is more important than truth. But a strong corporate culture that demands honesty can override that national tendency.

    Organizational culture touches everybody, regardless of level or function. It subtly guides behaviors and decisions, affecting performance throughout an organization.

    Culture is relevant to leaders in every organization, regardless of whether it's a for-profit, not-for-profit, higher-education, or government institution.

  3. How is culture different from mission and vision?
  4. A mission is a purpose.

    The mission of an organization is its purpose for existing, and guides its business strategies (including what products and services it offers, which markets it enters, and how it competes).

    The feeling that you're working on something worthwhile (an inspiring organizational mission) is an important motivator.

    The mission of a project is a more specific, near-term outcome.

    A vision is a desired end-state.

    It may be described at a high level, in a short statement. An example is a reward for success, along the lines of, "To be recognized as the best in our field." These may have some motivational benefits, but they don't guide actions.

    A more detailed (and useful) vision describes specifically how an organization will work in the future, for example, as a result of a transformation process. This kind of vision guides day-to-day decisions, for example on the design of the organization and its strategies.

    Culture is something altogether different from both mission and vision. It's "the way we work around here."

    An organization's mission may evolve over time. And it's vision may grow as it progresses. But culture is more fundamental. An effective culture will help an organization pursue any mission, and achieve any vision.

    By the way, you don't need a clear mission or vision to define an effective culture. For example, divisions of a conglomerate may have distinct missions and visions of their futures; but they may share a corporatewide culture.

  5. What kinds of organizational problems (symptoms) can be traced back to culture?
  6. You can spot a bad or ill-defined culture when good people do bad things.

    I don't mean an honest mistake, or a struggle with a challenging assignment. Inappropriate behaviors (or the lack of appropriate behaviors) which happen repeatedly throughout the organization are symptoms of an unproductive culture.

    Examples of symptoms include:

    • Bad habits.

    • "We didn't know that was wrong."

    • "We didn't know that was expected of us" (refering to things other than job-related deliverables).

    • "We just don't think to do it that way."

    The scope of culture is broad, encompassing ethics, integrity (trustworthyness), ability to team, the way staff treat customers, the way people treat each other, entrepreneurship and innovation, empowerment, and willingness to take judicious risks.

  7. How is organizational culture related to teamwork?
  8. There are a number of reasons why organizations struggle with teamwork. Culture is certainly one common root cause (but it's not the only one).

    Here are just a few examples of cultural principles (behaviors) that are essential to effective teamwork:

    • When contracting with customers, we commit only our own groups. We don't make commitments for other groups.

      • If subcontracts are required, we gain the agreement of our suppliers (team members) before the contract with our customer is finalized.

      • We determine only our own prices and time-frames. If subcontracts are required, we ask our suppliers to determine their prices and time-frames before we finalize our price and time-frame.

    • We meet all commitments to people within the organization, just as we do commitments to clients. (We do not fail at an internal commitment in order to accept a new client contract. Thus, we can trust each other and are just as comfortable subcontracting to each other as doing the work ourselves.)

    Clearly, behaviors such as these are fundamental to teamwork. But culture is not a silver bullet. Other root causes are:

    Ideally, you'll ultimately treat all three organizational systems: culture, structure, and the internal economy. As to which comes first, start with the organizational system that's most urgent to you.

  9. Are discrimination and sexual harassment strictly a matter of culture?
  10. Unacceptable behaviors such as these are certainly a matter of culture. A well-defined culture makes it very clear what positive behaviors are expected of everybody, and what's taboo.

    But culture alone is not enough. It must be reinforced by strong performance-management processes, including severe consequences for such inappropriate and harmful behaviors.

    Methods may also be needed. For example, fact-based methods of recruiting and evaluating job candidates may reduce discrimination in hiring. And quick and confidential ways to escalate a problem such as sexual harassment can help catch misbehavior early, before more damage is done.

  11. Isn't culture a product of the people at the top of an organization?
  12. It can be, but it doesn't have to be (and it should not be).

    If an organization's culture is not clearly articulated, then staff will observe and mimic the behaviors of the executives at the top.

    But since those executives are all unique people with their own styles, this doesn't produce a coherent culture. It may not even produce a constructive culture.

    On the other hand, a well-defined culture outlives any of the executives in an organization. And it guides them, just as it does the rest of the staff.

    Deliberately designing your culture is far preferable to leaving it to the vagaries of incumbent personalities.

    Of course, once the culture is defined, it's essential that top executives adopt it and practice the behaviors themselves. This is a strong form of reinforcement. And without this, staff won't take the culture seriously.

  13. Isn't changing an organization's culture is a long and difficult process?
  14. Although many believe it takes a generation to change corporation culture, that's not true. Culture can be changed within one year, with the right approach.

    Consider that culture includes two things:

    • Values, attitudes, feelings, beliefs

    • Behaviors, habits, practices, rituals, taboos

    Those who attempt to change culture by dictating values find themselves on a long, frustrating journey. It's exceedingly difficult to teach people what to value or how to feel. And you can't model and measure values.

    On the other hand, a behavioral approach is consistent with learning theory. Behaviors are tangible, and they're easy to teach, model, and measure.

    Rapid culture change results from crafting clear, actionable behavioral principles, followed by a deliberate change-management program to teach and reinforce those behaviors.

  15. Can a department within a company change its culture, even if the corporate culture doesn't change?
  16. Absolutely!

    When you're with people outside your organization, it's wise not to offend them by ignoring their cultural norms.

    But that doesn't mean you have to adopt their bad habits. For example, even if others may promise things they don't deliver, your organization can have a culture of integrity that never makes a promise it can't keep.

    Furthermore, you don't have to wait for an enterprisewide cultural initiative to define your culture. You have every right to decide how your organization operates.

    One risk in getting ahead of the enterprise culture is that your staff will see others violating your principles; so they may think that's okay. The antidote to this is an effective implementation process, followed by strong reinforcement within your organization.

    Obviously, you can't define an organizational culture that's in direct conflict with the enterprise culture.

    But most often we find that the enterprise culture is only loosely defined, perhaps even limited to some high-level values. In such a case, your definition of culture can be considered your way of operationalizing within your organization the enterprise's values -- drilling down in more detail, expanding the scope, and institutionalizing the behaviors.

  17. Do you have to provide foosball and free lunches to change culture?
  18. Perquisites are not the same thing as culture!

    Play-rooms, free lunches, and other benefits can be considered part of the compensation package. They might be a way to attract and retain talent in a competitive market.

    But they don't guide the day-to-day behaviors of people throughout the organization, as culture does.

    In many ways, culture is more powerful than perquisites.

    If a culture condones abusive behaviors, for example, free lunches won't make that a good place to work.

    On the other hand, in a great culture, people enjoy their work (with or without such perquisites). And they're highly productive and effective.

    It's best to separate in your mind the compensation and benefits package that it takes to attract and retain talent (including perquisites) from the definition of culture which guides staff in their daily actions and interactions.

  19. What are the steps involved in implementing culture change?
  20. Cultural change begins with carefully crafted principles of behavior, written in such a way that everybody knows exactly what to do.

    The various principles are typically grouped into themes, and published in a document that is distributed throughout an organization.

    Once they're written, 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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