A Realistic Approach to Changing Company Culture

There are four pivotal and perhaps counterintuitive steps that business leaders need to take to create a positive and productive company culture.

The first thing you need to do is to recognize your culture for what it truly is, as opposed to what you would like it to be. You then need to assess what it brings to the organization so you can decide what elements to keep and build on, and what you need to leave behind. After that, you can take the necessary steps toward transformation. Read on to understand exactly how each of these steps work.

Step 1: Embrace your culture for what it is.

If you want to create a positive and productive company culture, do not start out with a deck full of utopian values such as humble, honest, hardworking, driven, ethical, bold, brave, understanding, loving or caring. Yes, many organizations have amazing characteristics, but they have crappy ones as well. Listing these lofty ideals as valued behaviors will lead to an inauthentic organization where people are unable to live up to the idealized behaviors.

Once you have gotten over the idealized model of what your culture looks like, it’s time to get to know your company for what it is. Chances are, you are not going to like a lot of what you find. You may find tremendous work ethic, but you may also find lots of procrastination. You may find humility, but also a lot of focus on self-marketing. You may find bold people, but you may also find people who play it safe. The bottom line is that the first step in creating a positive and productive culture is seeing it exactly how it is, for all its beauty and all its ugliness.

Take our company as an example. We have incredible resourcefulness. But this resourcefulness stems out of the fact that we are a fluid organization that can feel very chaotic to some people. We care about how our people feel, but we are also relentless about our goals. We often lack structure, documentation and guidance. The flip side is that there is room for people to be entrepreneurial and creative and to shape things their own way.

The business’s culture is an asset because of its imperfections, rather than in spite of them. As we embrace our shortcomings, we can lean into them for all the benefits they bring and learn how to transform or overcome the negative aspects they promote over time. If we just pretend that our culture is perfect and that all our values are amazing, there is absolutely no room for honesty, authenticity or growth.

Step 2: Understand the ramifications of the culture and your overarching goals.

Even the most positive traits can have negative ramifications. It’s important to get a clear picture of how the cultural map plays into the company’s ability to deliver, innovate, create and operate efficiently.

Step 3: Plan for the culture you want in the future.

With a lucid picture of what our culture looks like and a profound understanding of how this plays out at an organizational level, we can plan ahead for the culture we want to create. Which characteristics do we need to sharpen, and which ones need to be dulled? We could be excessively dynamic, for example. This aspect could be dulled so that we can add more structure to the picture. We could also lean into the dynamic, fluid nature of our business and embrace it fully.

I don’t believe there are categorical imperatives here. Everything is highly contextualized, and the best culture for your business should be based on employee needs, client needs, company goals, and market needs and trends. To use the metaphor of a makeover, now that you know what you look like, you can decide how to cut your hair, which accessories you will wear and how to shape your overall look.

Step 4: Act toward your new culture.

Going through the steps outlined above will give you a clear picture of the present, an understanding of its ramifications and a vision of your future culture. You now need the tools to put this in place.

This is a gross oversimplification, but the two main things you need to decide moving forward are who you bring in and who you remove from the organization. While I do not deny the value of trying to train and mold behaviors in a group of people, more often than not, people are not willing to voluntarily change. To paraphrase an adage, people only change when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain and discomfort brought through change.

Having a clear cultural map and vector will make you look differently at your current employees as well as potential hires. A few years back, our company culture was very reactive. I tried everything I could to change that. I tried training, gamifying and incentivizing, but I could not get people to change their approaches. I knew that I needed more self-driven people with fewer preconceptions on the team, so I brought a group of bright interns into the organization. Within months, many of these interns were hired. They displayed a work ethic that significantly contrasted with the more experienced employees. This put implicit pressure on the more experienced employees to change. Some of them changed, and some of them left. The transformation of the company began by bringing in not a single individual, but a group of individuals who had the characteristics that were lacking in our organization.

There is no end to the process of building a positive and productive company culture. The culture is always changing, evolving and maturing. You need to keep listening to what your business needs and adjusting. It’s not rocket science if you can stand looking in the mirror and accepting all of the little wrinkles, gray hairs and zits that you wish your business did not have. The challenge is that most organizations are hopelessly incapable of recognizing their rawest, truest and often ugliest facets.

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