…culture changes are much more complicated than they seem. Why? It’s simple: a culture is pervasive. It’s in every nook and cranny of an organization, and it has deep roots. It got the way it is over time, and (this is important) for legitimate reasons.
By Alec Pendleton, Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by The MPI Group
“NOTHING EVER CHANGES AROUND HERE.”
“THE DAMN UNION WON’T LET ME FIX ANYTHING; MY HANDS ARE TIED!”
“MANAGEMENT JUST MAKES ONE MISTAKE AFTER ANOTHER. THEY NEVER LISTEN. THIS PLACE IS GOING DOWN THE TUBES!”
How often we hear that a company’s problems stem from the fact that it has a “bad culture”. How simple it seems to just fix it, and then everything will be all right. And how difficult that turns out to be!
Why is that? Why can’t we just “fix” the culture, explain to everyone how we need to change our attitude, how wonderful that will be, and then have it all just happen? Since we pointed out the benefits of the new culture, and announced the “program” to make the changes, why doesn’t everyone just follow along?
I’ve come to realize that culture changes are much more complicated than they seem. Why? It’s simple: a culture is pervasive. It’s in every nook and cranny of an organization, and it has deep roots. It got the way it is over time, and (this is important) for legitimate reasons.
So how do we change it?
A man I very much admired was promoted to his dream job as General Manager of a large division of a huge international manufacturing company. His division alone had almost 20,000 employees! And the culture was entrenched, and terrible. Costs were high, and the prevailing attitude was Union Vs. Management, the good guys against the bad guys. It was a war zone, day after day, and had been for years.
On one of his first days on the job, he wanted to meet with the union leadership to see if he could improve the contentious relationship. So he took off his suit coat and tie and walked out into the plant, to drop in on the union office unannounced. A revolutionary step! For years, any union/management meetings had been on management turf, very formalized, with the “opposing parties” across a table from one another. My friend’s objective that day was to discuss not a current grievance, not the problem of slackers and low productivity, but the United Way campaign. He wanted to ask the union leadership how they could work together to improve the company’s participation in the annual charity drive. He asked, then he listened, and together they developed a plan, which resulted in the best United Way results ever.
It was also the first step in the transformation of the entire culture. By finding an issue where their interests were aligned, and where the objectives were unrelated to the day-to-day issues that separated them, they learned to work together, and ultimately to trust one another. In the end, they recognized that, on almost every issue, they had more in common than not. Over the next few years, the new attitudes took root, grievances evaporated, productivity soared, and the division became a crown jewel of the corporation.
The lessons are simple ones:
A good place to start is with an issue that is unarguably a “good thing”, that is itself relatively trivial, and is unrelated to the core issues that are driving a bad culture.
Start small, with the objective not of fixing something, but of simply learning to work together.
You can’t change a culture all at once. But you can change it!
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