Culture Change: More Than a Project

Career Blog

A metal toggle switch with plate reading Change and Same, flipped into the Same position, illustrating the decision to work toward changing or improving your situation in lifeMany companies approach culture change like a project, but it’s not that simple. While change management includes elements of project management, it has an added layer of complexity that must be account for.

Change, at its core is personal, emotional, and largely internal. Culture change only happens and sticks when the majority of employees have insights meaningful enough to adjust their beliefs about what can and should be done. The effect is a shift in observable behavior that enhances the results obtained, both for the organization and the individual. So how can you make performance-focused culture change work in your organization?

  1. Make the Case: High-performing cultures are more accountable, efficient, and transparent. This provides for faster, more accurate communication, fewer defects, and enhanced innovation. High-performing organizations also make use of habitual coaching and feedback, which sparks employee development.
  2. Mind the Barriers: The biggest hurdle to developing a high performance culture is commitment. Often the C-suite supports the concept, but quickly jumps to other initiatives killing culture change momentum. In other cases, top and first line leaders are united, but the commitment stalls in middle management or is lost in translation across cultures. You have to ensure consistency and focus.
  3. Resist the Easy Answer: Many organizations try to get the pulse of performance by developing competency models or aligning themselves with prepackaged vendor solutions. Building, launching, and attempting to ensure adoption of these frameworks require a Herculean effort yet rarely move the needle on actual performance. Why? When you look behind the marketing, most models are interchangeable – flashy titles filled with stock language that struggles to apply to actual work. Given the pain, cost and inconvenience, most are ignored shortly after implementation.

Another downside of relying on a competency model for performance improvement and development is that while they may clarify corporate and even position level attributes, they don’t marry up to the needs of the individual. Employees need to be told (accurately so) what specific skills they need to work on to reach the next goal. They then need to be coached to meet those requirements. Once they make the effort, the rewards have to actually come.

Competency models theoretically tell employees what is needed for a role, but they don’t provide insight. For example, if a competency is aligned to a role, but honestly out of my wheelhouse, what should I do? Would a workaround suffice, should I consistently chase a rabbit I won’t catch, or should I try another avenue to success?

Finally, the lack of consistent interpretation of competencies also throws a monkey in the wrench. Some companies cite descriptors like “executive presence” to softball a tough message. We’ve all known the brown suite guy in a blue suit company. Culture matters and politics can often overshadow competency-based decisions. To be effective you can’t hide behind language.

  1. Know Yourself: Companies can’t be all things to all employees. Sometimes culture change fails because you’re just not that organization. The best way to expedite culture change and enhance performance is to be honest about what you are today and how much you are willing to change.

Remember, your company culture isn’t what you say it is. It’s what employees – past, present and future say it is when leadership is not in the room. Only honesty and consistent action can change or enhance that conversation.

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