Culture Change is Continuous

Once upon a time, organizations treated culture change like any number of other corporate initiatives:  There were project plans, timelines, communication strategies, and roll-outs.  Leaders were earnestly counseled to establish a case-for-change, describe the “burning platform” as a metaphor for the need for change, and lay out a compelling vision for the future.

To be blunt, culture change is not a corporate initiative—it is continuous.  It is happening every day in your organization.  And whether you realize it or not, you are changing the culture with every interaction.

There is no “end state” when it comes to culture change.  Culture is something that leaders impact in large and small ways thousands of times each day.

Culture is patterns of behavior that are reinforced or punished by people and systems over time.

When you consider this definition of culture, it moves culture out of the realm of something that is hard to define and impact, and into the realm of human behavior.  More than 100 years of scientific research on human behavior shows that each of us as leaders can influence those patterns of behavior.

Culture lays at the heart of what organizations stand for and many times, we find patterns of behavior that are wildly at odds with what we believed, or wanted to believe our organizations stood for.

Those patterns of behavior are not accidents.  All behavior is logical. It is a function of the environment created by leaders.  Every day, leaders intentionally or unintentionally reinforce or discourage the behavior of their people.  This happens through the questions they ask, what they choose to praise, what they choose to ignore, the messages they share, the priorities they set, etc.  Day-in and day-out, these patterns add up to and create predictable and logical patterns of behavior.

The actions that leaders take every day are constantly contributing to the culture of that organization.  There is no beginning or ending point to this process.  There is no project plan or Gantt chart.  There is no budget or steering team for this change. It is fundamentally how culture is shaped, and it happens continuously.

Think of it this way:  When we as leaders have declared that we need to change the culture, what we are saying is that we wish to fundamentally change the behaviors that get rewarded, lauded, talked-about, and held up as examples.  We are also saying that certain behaviors are no longer acceptable—even if…especially if they are part of how we do things around here.

Whether we are doing so intentionally or not, our behavior impacts the behavior of others and therefore influences our culture.  The key is understanding this influence and applying the science of human behavior to intentionally change culture every day.

Here are four rules to consider when your aim is to change your culture:

  1. Identify—Focus on the behaviors you want and not on those you do not want.  Pinpoint the critical few behaviors at each level that demonstrate the culture you want.
  2. Analyze—Separate out Can’t Do behaviors from Won’t Do behaviors. 

    a. “Can’t Do” behaviors are almost always a function of the direction people are getting, their skill level, or their resources

    b. “Won’t Do” behaviors are a function of the consequences they experience when they do them.  If they get dinged for the behaviors you want them to do, don’t expect them to repeat that behavior.

  3. Align—Leaders go first when it comes to culture change.  If you want people to engage in different behaviors, it must begin with the actions of leaders at each level.  Know what behaviors you want at each level and make sure that reinforcement is directed toward those behaviors.
  4. Activate—Every day each leader’s job is to prompt, look for, and reinforce the behaviors that represent the culture you want.

The fabric of any culture tends not to be reinforced in grandiose and public demonstrations.  Most of the patterns that make up a culture are built through very small and subtle reinforcers every day. 

As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “What my boss finds interesting, I find fascinating.”

(For more on culture change read, “You Own the Culture.”)

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.