CHANGING ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE IS ONE of the most effective ways to improve the success rate of any company, but it is far from easy. In fact, culture transformation is one of the toughest challenge the leader face. It’s the real test of a leader.
Great leaders are those who can successfully drive positive change within an organization. It requires time, effort, and a lot of patience.
Remember, the culture change process is a journey, not an event, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
So, it takes time and cannot happen overnight.
See, culture change at its core is a people process and it is a well-known fact that we humans are creatures of habits. Habits mean anything that is old. Yes, old is comfortable, old is familiar, old is known, old is trusted, while any change is new and new is unknown, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar.
Change is thus not a linear process. It will encounter bumps, resistance, fear, skepticism, and negativity on the way and thus requires time, patience, humility, honesty, listening, adjustments, and guidance. All of these require space and thus takes time. Nothing instant happens.
In this age of instant everything, surprisingly change is vaccinated against speed, it is also immune to technical advancements. Agreed somethings in life will never change, just as childbirth takes 9 months, no technological development so far has been able to squeeze the pregnancy period, so, does transformational change. It has a gestation period of 3-5 years, except for some exceptions before you see final results. Nobody, I say nobody not even dictators, emperors, kings, and pharaohs can dictate it fast. Even if they force it fast, history is testimony to the fact that fast change doesn’t last. Need some proof? Well, let’s go back in time almost 3400 years ago in Egypt.
A great Egyptian story
A Pharoah in ancient Egypt conducted the most shocking cultural change in human history. The experiment came to be known as the “Amarna” experiment. His name was Amenhotep- IV, also known as Akhenaten. His father Amenhotep-III had built a vast empire stretching from Egypt, Sudan, and parts of Syria. After his father’s death, he became Pharoah and ruled Egypt for the next 17 years from 1352 to 1336 BC. Under his leadership, the 18th dynasty empire reached its peak and glory. Egypt experienced immense richness and great prosperity. His fame was also boosted by his principal wife queen Nefertiti, who ruled alongside him as 2nd in command and was famous for her good looks and wisdom. She is considered to be “the most beautiful woman” in Egyptian history.
Apart from other things, his reign is most famous for the new cultural revolutionary idea he implemented. For 1000 years the Egyptians practiced polytheism which was worshipping a collection of Gods- Isis, Bast, Osiris, Horus, Thoth, Anubis, and more.
Now in place of traditional polytheism which the Egyptians had always known, he suddenly almost overnight instituted a strict monotheism which is the worship of just one God- Aten, represented by a sun disk.
It was a sudden change but this culture change from polytheism to Monotheism didn’t happen through amalgamation and understanding but through destruction of old habits and complete annihilation of old Gods. He destroyed or forcefully closed the old temples and even went to the extent of removing their names from inscriptions. People were not taken on board and integrated into the process, on the contrary, the worshippers were attacked, mocked, and ridiculed. He forced them to believe in the existence of a single universal God. Though his subjects didn’t like this, they did not revolt, but bitterness and deep resentment grew within.
Around 1346, he ordered that a new city be built to honor “Aten” which was to be his new capital called “Amarna.” He moved the seat of power from the traditional palace at Thebes to Amarna. This decision created more resentment.
What happened to the change? Well, as obvious the culture changes though fast did not last. He paid a heavy price for it. After his death, Egypt immediately reverted to its old religious practice of polytheism.
Such was the hate that he was labeled as “Doomed one”, just because he had overthrown the old way of life, their belief, and culture thus disrupting their life and hurting their emotions. The body of many pharaohs has been discovered in the last 200 years, but his mummy is yet to be found.
Historians believe that the animosity and resentment by his people towards him might be the reason to believe that his body was destroyed after burial.
Now if you are in a leadership position in your organization and if you are reading this, there is a possibility that you may dismiss this above experiment as an exception or you may offer logic that it failed because it was a sensitive religious-cultural change.
Let me then, with all humility remind you that human history is stuffed with examples of failed attempts to change culture, be it political, social, religious, or corporate. The only difference visible then and today will be the manifestation of emotions like resentment, anger, fear, and bitterness.
In the corporate world the expression of results, if the culture change is not done right will be in the form of less engagement, low morale, high turnover, high absenteeism, low team spirit among its people.
Understand this: hasty implementation will always be resisted. Common sense will tell you that the best way to change company culture is not to charge in like a “Bull-in-a-China-shop.”
Not going in too deep, let me just share some cultural change levers:
Fast won’t last and slow is fast.
The “Amarna” experiment was proof of the fact. No CEO or manager can force people to behave differently. The heart of any change process to be successful is its people. Changing culture means humans changing their habits and behaviors which takes time.
While leading culture change, beware of the danger. Not everything that is there needs to be changed. Changing everything can prove dangerous and disastrous. As a leader, always ask 3 questions:
What should stay or what we are doing right?
What should go or what we are doing wrong?
What is missing that needs to be included?
Always remember, while you make the cultural change you have to have some continuity with the past. So, when it comes to culture change “Fast won’t last and slow is fast.”
Small things are big things.
In culture change, not only “slow is fast”, but also “small is big.” Culture change is not changing something, but it’s the small things that matter most.
Nobody stumbles over a mountain, but it is small pebbles that cause them to stumble.
In a change, it is often small things that make people uncomfortable and resistant. Pay close attention to minor details. It is a proven fact that success in cultural change is easily achieved through small incremental changes. Gradual and incremental change should be the norm. Begin this journey of culture change with small parts, which can have the biggest impact. Also find out influencers, favorable, energizers, and enthusiasts, get them on board.
Celebrate small wins.
Then as you surf the journey, you’ll experience small milestones. Celebrate them as small wins which will reflect tangible results and progress. These celebrations of the small win en route will become a powerful symbol of the benefits of being a participant in the journey. It will send a strong signal to fence-sitters and bystanders to join in. Before you know it, the whole process will gather momentum and eventually, big wins start happening.
Relationships matter a lot.
If you want a great company culture, then the secret ingredient is people and relationships that they create with one another. Research and studies show that people spend one-third of their life and almost 60% of their waking hours at work. Since you spend the majority of waking hours at work, the relationship formation begins at a granular level which is individual to individual. So, begin with the individual you hire.
Hire people who are culture fit. Hiring right for culture is a crucial aspect of great culture. Look for beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions that are consistent with the organizational culture that you intend to create. It is always better and easy to hire right than fire right. Getting the right culture fit should be a part of the hiring process.
Answer the how and where.
Also since a culture change process is a journey, it needs at least two things to make it worthwhile: the how and the where. Where do you intend to go or reach and how do you intend to go there? The vision and values represent the where and how. The objective of creating a vision is to create a story of the future: where we want to see the organization reach in the near future and what would the ideal culture look like in that future.
Values on the other hand will tell people how to reach that future. Both vision and values become the final blueprint and the governing principle. It will become the playbook which every employee would refer to and the music sheet which everyone would play from.
The importance of communication.
Another key area is communication, one of the most important elements of a culture change process. The relationship between communication and culture is very unique and interconnected. Culture is created and shaped partly by communication. The way people say and behave at the workplace, the quality of human interaction and relations.
Once created, it is communication, that is needed to transmit the culture shift. Thus, communication shapes and influences culture, and culture shapes and influences communication. No initiative can become a success if it stays at the top, it must go down. Communication acts as a gravity agent to allow the culture to flow downwards.
Values, vision, plans, strategies, and other aspects of change need to be communicated to everyone within the organization. When it comes to transformation aggressive communication is the key. Communicate as you have never before as a leader. There is nothing called over-communication or communicating too much.
Constancy and consistency are the keys when it comes to the role of communication in culture change.
The leadership legacy.
Last, but not least, in fact, the most important aspect is leadership. Leadership is the strongest lever of cultural change. If you are in a leadership position and are interested in changing the culture of your organization. Then the first task you should do is to look in the mirror and see what it reflects? Yourself!
As a leader, you are the most powerful communicator. Every word you speak and every action you take shape the culture. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” should become the mantra of leadership at all levels in the organization. This is one task no leader can delegate. Remember both by default or deliberate a leader always leads by example.
The leader sets the tone and then it trickles downwards. While culture is everybody’s responsibility and every person contributes, but it starts with leaders who have the ultimate power to make or break a company’s culture.
Corporate or company or organizational culture is not just a most sought-after leadership or management buzzword of the 21st century. It has the real power to be a defining difference between you and your competitor. In fact, a company’s culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage and hard to replicate entity. The beauty is that it is completely in control of the people and leadership within the organization.
Corporate culture is also not just a good thing, but a business imperative. Various research and studies show that culture is critical for any business’s long-term growth, progress, profitability, and revenues. A right and healthy organizational culture is the real driving force behind business success.
Don’t believe it, just check the names of companies on the list of fortune’s “Best Companies to Work for” and scan their performance, and you’ll clearly see a clear connection between healthy workplace culture and a healthy top-line and bottom-line numbers. Though culture is very soft but believe me it yields very hard financial results.
As we all know, a company is only as good as the people it keeps. Thus, it’s all the more important that a company must be able to attract the right people to achieve success.
A great corporate culture serves as a strong magnet, attracting the right talent. Millennials who very soon will form the majority of the workforce consider the company’s culture as one of the most important factors while considering career opportunities. In fact, studies show millennials tend to value organizational culture so highly that they are ready to give up money for a chance to work at a company with a great culture.
Would love to hear from you! Share your cultural story or experience in the comments box below.
Happy Culture Transformation.