Embarking on a Cultural Transformation

Posted by: Kim SchaffKim Schaff

Over the past few months, the subject of organizational culture change continues to arise in my conversations with peers and colleagues in the human resource community. What is culture? Is it your organizations mission, vision & values? I believe it is much more. Culture is the underlying beliefs and assumptions that govern and determine behavior in the workplace. It is a perception held by your employees.I have worked with several organizations which have come to me in need of a significant cultural shift. Initially, I evaluate an organization to determine if they have the best driver of cultural change readily available – strong leadership.

Developing a Cohesive, Functional Management Team

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable says: “Teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice – and a strategic one.” I utilize this perspective to achieve buy-in explaining that striving to create a cohesive, functional management or leadership team is one of the few remaining competitive advantages available to any organization looking for a powerful point of differentiation.

This month I facilitated a two day offsite workshop for a leadership team utilizing The Five Dysfunctions of a Team model. I believe this crucial first-step will be the key to their success in initiating a cultural shift within their organization. I witnessed this leadership team develop vulnerability based trust, taught them how to engage in productive, ideological conflict and encouraged them as they made plans to hold one another accountable.

As we traveled back to Boise, we continued our conversation considering the best way for the leaders to cascade these new ideas and objectives to the employees in their organization… and they began to realize – this is where the real work will start.

You Change a Culture with Stories

We tend to conform to the behavior of the people around us, which is what makes culture change particularly challenging. Sometimes though, the problem contains the solution. I encourage leaders to start by seeking out the “stories at the water cooler” that reveal on-the-job realities. The stories you hear may be about how hard your individual departments work, a lack of communication among the managers or how rare it is for someone to voice an unpopular opinion.

Peter Bregman, strategic advisor, says: “To start a culture change all we need to do is two simple things:

 1. Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it.

2. Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then tell stories about them.”

If we want to change the culture, we have to change the stories. We must do something so unique and different that people talk.

Creating an Intentional Culture

Developing an intentional organizational culture is no small feat and requires consistency on the part of the organization’s leadership. For example, managers may want to create a culture of open communication which will require them to stop checking email or answering the phone in the middle of a conversation. Instead, they must commit to putting the computer to sleep and the phone on hold when an employee walks into their office. If your leadership team desires to work as a company team, rather than working within individual departments or “silos”, I might ask managers to hold back on solving their employee’s problems, but rather to suggest the employee ask for help from someone in another department and then check in and let them know how it goes. These may seem like minor changes – but they may be so different from the “way things have always been done” that they will be a shock to your employees. They will have a great impact, they will be memorable.

The Bonfire Approach

While even small changes can create new “stories” sometimes it’s appropriate to hold a “bonfire” for an old system and create a moment in time when a change occurs. Employees in an organization I worked with were accustomed to performance reviews with confusing measures, unachievable goals and rater biases. I created a “story for the water cooler” when I introduced the concept of strengths-based performance measurement and transitioned to a new performance review tool incorporating SMART goals, individualized competency measures and strengths utilization review. For a while there will be disconnect between the new stories and the entrenched systems promoting the old culture – and that disconnect will create tension – tension that can be harnessed to create a means to support the new stories.

A Bold Transformation

A cultural transformation is an evolutionary process that may take several years. We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with them. We can change our stories and be changed by them. Cultural alignment makes it easier to work together, keeps everyone engaged and delivers extraordinary results. And yet, it is a courageous journey to look honestly at your own leadership and the culture you created and ask “What do I want to do about this”?

As we contemplate new beginnings at the start of a new year, there is no better time than now to assess your organization’s current culture and create a plan to more fully realize the existing potential within your people. I would be honored to join you on the journey.


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