There are two kinds of cultural change for leaders to navigate – change by choice and change by circumstance. Of course, even when it comes to change by circumstance, leaders still have a choice. That choice is how they will engage in the face of circumstances out of their control.
The key to navigating change, whether by circumstance or choice, is the same: Be clear about how you want things to turn out. When it comes to cultural change, Stephen Covey’s advice to “begin with the end in mind” applies in spades.
A big challenge is that cultural change can seem a bit amorphous. After all, how can you define an end state for something that can be hard to define to begin with?
Culture can’t be measured in dollars and cents, but it can be observed. The access to observing the culture is the language used in the organization, as well as the behavior. By language I don’t mean English or French. This refers to the persistent conversations and specific choice of words used on an everyday basis.
Let me give you an example:
In a culture that reveres politeness, how likely do you think it is that open criticism, or even negative assessments or emotions would be tolerated? In a polite culture, you would be able to observe people going out of their way to avoid using negative words and avoid any conversation that could appear confrontational. People tend to talk about problems in the context of opportunities. They would likely refrain from assigning blame, at least in public, by speaking of any breakdown in the language of “we” so that no one feels attacked or disrespected.
This isn’t to say that politeness is a bad cultural attribute, but to point out the culture can be observed in language and behavior. The good news is leaders can use this as a clue to creating the culture you want by design instead of simply living with the cultural fallout of change you cannot control.
Here are two things a leader can do to get on the road to designing the culture they want rather than be relegated to navigating the culture they have:
1. Listen for the beliefs behind the language and behavior you observe
Start paying attention to the beliefs behind the persistent words used and behaviors they exhibit. Ask yourself what beliefs are driving the conversations people have and how they do things.
Other aspects to consider include the unwritten rules of how to behave. Are there things you should always do or never do? The answers to this question will give you clues to the cultural norms at work. This can give insight into things you want to embrace as well as things you may want to change.
Continuing with the politeness example, you may want to keep treating people with kindness and respect. However, you may want to change the cultural taboo of publicly discussing what isn’t working because you can see the habit is getting in the way of your ability to identify and resolve issues quickly.
2. Revisit and refocus on your values
Declaring your values is a great example of how an organization “begins with the end in mind” when it comes to its culture.
You may have carefully crafted the intended values of your organization, but that doesn’t mean those values are being lived in practice. Take some time to observe the language and behavior you see consistently. Make assessments regarding how well people are living true to the values you said you would live by.
Do you see any gaps between word and deed? If so, you will have a guide to the conversations you need to have to begin work to align language and behavior with the aspiration of living true to your values. You may even discover it’s time to refine or recast your values. This is especially important when organizations are being merged and can be a great way to initiating a bridge of two cultures.
By revisiting and refocusing on your values, you create the opportunity for everyone to engage with you on bringing your values to life.
Designing change in culture
Consider that these aren’t just things for you to do once, but rather practices you can adopt that will ensure you are at the helm of your culture rather than at the affect of it. Do these things well and you’ll be on your way to developing an essential skill for effective leadership – navigating cultural change by design.
What do the language and behaviors tell you about your organization?