HR Advice - How to change workplace culture

Written by Professional Academy Guest Blogger - Nicki Hayes

Culture and engagement is the most important issue large organisations face around the world, according to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Report 2015. ‘Organisations that create a culture defined by meaningful work, deep employee engagement, job and organisational fit, and strong leadership are outperforming their peers and will likely beat their competition in attracting top talent,’ the report asserts.

So how do you go about creating such a culture? And is there a one size fits all model or do smaller businesses require a different approach?

First, let’s clarify: what do we mean by culture?

The Oxford Dictionary defines culture as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” My preferred definition, in terms of workplace culture, is Marvin Bower’s “the way we do things around here.”

Now, “the way we do things around here” may imply that changing an organisational culture is as simple as changing processes and policies. Not so. As executive coach and engagement specialist Erica Sosna points out in her recent HRReview article, organisational culture depends on the traditions and behaviours modelled by senior leadership, which depend on their values and characters. Process and policy alone will not change behaviour, even in the regulatory authority field in which Erica’s firm specialises.

So, how do you change a culture?

According to Erica, changing a culture requires:

  • Changing the idea of the culture – by leaders pointing to their future destination, speaking clearly and frequently about their vision for the future.
  • Changing the customs (‘what good looks like’) by enabling everyone within the organisation to contribute to the discussion and decision regarding what good looks like and how to plan development and recruitment to support it.
  • Changing the behaviour by rewarding that you want to see more of, which requires embedding the specific activities and behaviours you are looking for into the rewards system.

Her approach shares some common themes with Deloitte’s recommendations at the end of the Culture and engagement: the naked organization section of the global report.

Deloitte recommends that global organisations start the cultural shift required to future-proof their businesses by:

  • Engaging from the top down, with processes and attitudes in place to ensure leaders recognise engagement and retention as their top priority.
  • Measuring organisational culture indicators that help the business to understand how it really feels to employees to work there, in real time.
  • Making work meaningful by cascading coaching and feedback and teaching leaders how to be authentic and transparent.
  • Listening to millennials, whose needs and values will shape the future culture.
  • Simplifying the work environment to reduce the burden of today’s 24/7 work environment.

But what about smaller organisations?

The Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD) recognised of the importance of cultural shift in smaller organisations a year before Deloitte’s revelation this summer. Indeed, last June, Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at CIPD, shared with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) a summary of her research into keeping the culture and values of small and medium sized businesses alive.

Her tips were:

  • Look out for signs that your employees are becoming less engaged.
  • Articulate what your business stands for and its values in a way that you people can identify with.
  • Tell your story.
  • Consider how introducing new formal processes and procedures will affect your business.
  • Make your values the golden thread through all your people practices.

So, does one size fit all?

Of course not! Every business is unique, regardless of size. Having said this, there are common themes in the above examples.  Further research and my personal experience suggest these are universal.

Indeed, like most things in business (and life), making change happen requires:

  • Clarifying the changes you want to see (by relating desired behaviours/actions to values)
  • Communicating these values, behaviours/actions
  • Celebrating where you see the desired behaviours/actions happening
  • Continuing to repeat these steps.

Business writer and mentor Mike Pegg captures this brilliantly with his approach to creating workplace cultures. I have personally witnessed this framework succeed within organisations of all sizes, from small digital marketing agencies to UK based retail chains and global IT infrastructure suppliers. He has distilled his positive approach to changing workplace cultures to three steps:

  • Clarify the culture by sharing the purpose, principles and positive benefits.
  • Communicate the culture by focussing on positive modelling (with senior leadership team living the values as well as proactively embedding them in all policies and processes), positive reinforcement (by rewarding success and sharing success stories), and by never ever walking past a quality issue.
  • Continue to sustain the culture (by repeating the actions described above, sharing success stories, and designing interviews, inductions and cultural health checks mindful of the culture you wish to create.)

This Positive Approach blueprint includes simple exercises any business can adapt to fit their intentions. Other exercises and frameworks based on positive psychology are available on Mike’s portal of positive resources. You can find out more in this interview recently broadcast by Render Positive, a marketing agency intent on sustaining a culture where teams out-create, out-think and out-perform alternative agencies and have a damn good time in the process.

What are the approaches to shifting corporate cultures that you’ve seen work? We’d love to hear your ‘good look like this stories’, so please share…