Changing Company Culture – launching the journey

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Late August gives me an itch. Or a disturbance in the Force…whatever you fancy.

It’s that end of summer / start of school thing. I’ve always been a bit conflicted about this time of year because, when I was a child, I loved the freedom of summer holidays and also (shh, secretly and rather shame-facedly) rather relished the structure and hope presented by the new school year. So here I am today, with my sadness at the loss of summertime freedom to meet and play out with my family and friends, to relax and let my mind roam, coupled with the anticipation of the September back-to-work and structured dynamism of client work.

The great thing is that I get the sense I’m not alone in having a dual relationship with this time of year, even though this year in the UK, late August has a very odd pre-Brexit vibe.

For example, yesterday I met up with the CEO of a large SME. When I last saw her in late June she was, frankly, looking drained and depleted. Yesterday, she was positively buzzing and full of enthusiasm for the business growth strategies that the summer break had allowed her to generate; looking forward to sharing her vision and passion with her colleagues. We talked at length about her vision for the type of culture she wants to create that will enable those growth strategies.

It’s great she’s so buzzing, and she’s right to ask the culture question linked with visionary growth; culture is unbelievably powerful. It defines what and how work actually gets done so, naturally, those bubbling with enthusiasm for the return to work and the can-do phase want to bring their company along with them. In the field of organisational psychology that I work in, Transactional Analysis, there is a simple yet powerful way of looking at company culture.

 
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The concept is that culture is an output of the interplay between the ‘structures’ within a company and the ‘dynamics’ of the people within it. By structures, I’m not talking of the buildings or space, although these are included, I’m primarily talking about tangible things like organisation charts, policies, documented procedures, appraisals, training, job descriptions, etc. Stuff you could put your hand on, should you so desire. Dynamics looks at how you can see people behaving in the company.

Structures heavily influence how we behave. Think about it, if you’re asked to clock-in to the factory and you’re paid based on your time on shift, you’re more likely to be on time. Or if you’ve never been trained to do the role you’ve been promoted to, once the congratulations and excitement are over, the anxiety and over-compensating behaviours based on your fears of inadequacy can make you ‘different’ from how you were before.

This is how culture gets formed. What and how we structure work - organise, measure, reward, penalise, and so on; this in turn influences people’s behaviour, which in turn re-impacts the structures, and so the loop goes on. Company culture forms from the interplay.

This means that to change a company’s culture, you need to do more than model good behaviours. You need to identify existing tangible structural ‘stuff’ then consistently and fairly implement the new policies, procedures, etc that will influence behaviour and, in time, change culture.

Yes, despite the naysayers and doom-mongers who try to tell me that you can’t change a company culture, er, yes you can. I’m not for one minute suggesting this is easy or can be done at lightning speed just because the leadership wants/states they want it done, to provide some sort of instant gratification, but you can change culture. And that’s the programme I’m now working on with my reinvigorated client CEO. We’re working on identifying the critical structures and observable dynamics in her company to influence where she wants the culture to change.

We’re scratching that August itch.

PS. Leadership in forming and changing culture is so screamingly important. Leaders set the tone, model the acceptable behaviours and install the policies and procedures that structure the business. Leaders also have to take the, um, nonsense that gets flung at them psychologically. Well, that’s my next blog sorted then: coming soon, my ruminations on the power, importance and challenges of leadership.