Own Your Culture: Fake It til You Make It

Three Minutes

“I want to change my culture. You can do that for me, right?”

Probably the number one request consultants get is to “change” a client’s “culture”.

Most clients can’t even define what they mean by “culture”, let alone accurately describe what their culture is (or what they specifically don’t like about it).

peopleOne of life’s great ironies is that clients frequently engage consultants to assess their culture, using one objective model or another – and then deny the findings. Or cherry-pick what they like and explain away the rest.

Regardless, any consultant who says (s)he can change a client culture is lying: “Cultures” are the shared beliefs of an organization – and the actions taken that demonstrate those beliefs.

Because culture is based on beliefs and values – the internal workings of its employees’ hive mind – leaders can never truly see it, and outsiders can’t change it. It’s like an organization’s shadow – you can see it, you can almost describe it, but you can’t touch it.

“Culture” is a result, not an input.

So What?

If it’s so hard to define, and impossible to dictate, why is it so important? Getting wrapped up in people’s beliefs and thoughts sounds hokey, like so much other touchy-feely claptrap. Why do we care?

Culture manifests in shared behavior. Unguided actions and undirected conversations. The operating system by which employees conduct themselves. How they navigate their performance system. And, in the short term, it’s completely out of anyone’s control.

When culture is aligned with strategy, great things happen. That’s why it’s important.  Visions are achieved with relatively little fuss. For that to occur, collective espoused values must agree with personal internal values – and what behaviors and actions are encouraged.

If “bad” – or at least, unwanted – behavior is tolerated, it becomes the norm. Leaders stop noticing. Acceptance is tacit consent. At the extreme, this is known as “the normalization of deviance”: once habits form, peoples’ beliefs actually change – as they accept the new norm, they rationalize it.

So how do you change a culture?

First, define the culture you want. (As simple an endeavor as Steve Martin’s “How to Be a Millionaire – and Never Pay Taxes”).

Then flip the script. Remember: you can’t dictate how people think. Or what they value. Or believe. But you can exert influence over what they do. And, just as with “bad” behavior, what we do influences what we think.

When people are operating in your desired culture, what does that actually look like? What tasks will they complete that will suggest they’re aligned? How will people act toward one another? What code of conduct will they follow? Be specific and pinpointed.

Next, define (again, specifically) how leaders should behave, to support everyone else.

(And, you know, get those leaders to behave that way.)

Once senior staff starts modeling new behavior, it becomes easier to influence the rest of the organization to act that way. Remember, what we do influences what we think – it’s a “fake it til you make it” approach, but it works.

So, Don’t:

  • … presume leaders will go along just because you tell them to – the rules of Change Management still apply.
  • … try to take short cuts – rank-and-file employees won’t dream of changing behaviors unless they see their bosses doing that as well.
  • … give up just because it’s hard. You’re changing a lot of wiring – starting with behavioral habits, and then working on the mindset.

And do remember that cultures don’t change quickly – but they can revert at lightning speed. For every success, look for ways – typically by changing processes – that will serve as check-valves on progress, minimizing the chance for backsliding.

Culture is an organization’s shadow. The only two ways to change a shadow are to change the light or change the source.

Outsiders – consultants – can’t change your culture for you. You need to identify the behaviors that will drive the attitudes you want and guide your organization down that path. Even then, that’s not dictating the culture – just charting the course that minimizes turbulence along the way.