Understanding Organisational Cultural Change

How do leaders change the culture of organisations?

Leaders are often aware of cultural issues within their organisation or team, but spend their time dealing with the problems these issues create.

These problems include office politics, high staff turnover/low staff engagement, teams working in silos or a lack of accountability, to name just a few.

Many leaders find that their existing values or behaviours – the culture they wish they had – would resolve many of these problems. For example, a company with the value “We collaborate” should not be working in silos, or a team that says “We care” should not be talking behind each other’s backs.

Leading and managing organisational cultural change is challenging – it is a long term project, mistakes will happen, and members of your team are likely to resist the change – but at the end of the day, the teams results rest with the leader and if you are ignoring a cultural issue, your teams results are probably suffering.

If you reflect on your team, what behaviours do you currently tolerate that you know affect performance? Would changing organisational culture, or a few key behaviours, improve your results?


How do I go about changing my team’s culture?

It is a common question, and the good news is that, by asking it, you have already started on the journey towards cultural change.

1. Awareness

As with all types of change, being aware of a need for change is the first step. In business environments there are a huge number of stimuli that will prompt awareness of the need for cultural change, but one thing we do know is that someone, at some stage, will say: ‘What we are doing now isn’t serving us well, and we need to change so that we can improve.’

It may be a new employee whose fresh eyes point out that what you are doing is not productive. In a worst-case scenario something more serious may occur, like a claim of bullying or harassment. Or it may be an external factor, such as a competitor who is having more success than you. The point is that something hits a nerve and, to improve, the way your team is behaving needs to change.

2. Identify who your real leaders are

Now that the desire for change has been articulated, it cannot be taken back; but it can be ignored. This second step is the important one and where most people get stuck. They know change is needed, but they are not doing anything about it. It is time to find the people that can make it happen.

Start by asking yourself: ‘Who do I need on board to help me drive this change? Who can influence the team, role-model, and persist until the change is implemented?’ The answer might well be that you can do this yourself, but in larger teams it will involve several people, and they may not be managers or leaders in your structure.

You will also need to be aware that some people have influence in your team that is not always positive, so think about the members of your team that others follow. How are you going to handle the influential blockers?

3. Set a baseline and a goal

Steps one and two will get you moving; now it is time to act. Get your team of leaders together and outline that the journey starts now. This public declaration of the need for change is what many leaders find challenging. The need goes from a thought in your head to something that can be owned, and to the knowledge that people, including yourself, can be held accountable.

Start by being clear that this discussion will be about culture change; change that will result in improvement. Set expectations, understanding that the road will not be smooth, but lay out the rewards at the end. Importantly, get your team involved in the conversation. Ask them what they are seeing right now in the team; ask them if the current culture is creating the results you all want, if you are all engaging in unproductive behaviours – and own it if you are doing this too. You will need to be vulnerable so that others can be as well.

As a team, agree on the ideal culture that will drive your performance. How do you all see the new culture looking and feeling? When team members start or leave the business, what will they say about working with the team? Once you have got a new value or behaviour agreed upon, give it specifics to avoid confusion. Do not settle for ‘We collaborate’; say, ‘We collaborate because our conversations are two-way.’

4. Embed the new culture

What you spend time on will model to your team what is important. Think about how much time you spend looking at and working on your culture. One of the reasons it likely needs changing in the first place is that it has been neglected. Now that you have got your goal, it is time to make sure you are working towards it and not falling back into old habits. You need to embed the culture. This will not be easy and expecting perfection is setting everyone up to fail.

You will need to be having open and honest conversations about how everyone is tracking, using your new behaviours/values as a framework. The team, as well as a leader, will need to be rewarding those who embrace the new culture and challenging those who fall short.

Your new culture should touch all elements of your team’s work, from recruitment through to exit. Culture, like in society, impacts on everything your team is doing. From the language on your website and advertising all the way through to how you work with people when they leave the team, your culture will be expressed, noticed and felt. This article explains how your culture impacts on every aspect of your teams performance.

You will need to ensure that your team’s culture does not live in a strategy document or on a poster on the wall. The words alone will not drive your performance.

At Leading Teams, we support leaders and their teams through the process of cultural change, and therefore to improve their performance. Organisations we work with strive to become high performing. You can read more on what a high performing team looks like here.