Why I Didn’t Believe in Culture Change Part 1 of 2

Completing my graduate work in Organization Development back in 1978, I came away with the belief that “true” culture change couldn’t be changed deliberately. While I heard of many organizations that experienced change, most cases reported reverting back to their old culture within a relatively short period of time. And, then it was a mystery to determine what qualified as a “true” culture change.

Before answering the question of culture change it was necessary to define the culture of an organization. Is an organization’s culture represented by its values or was it more focused on its behaviors? What about the mindset and beliefs of people within an organization? After much reflection, I realized that a culture is represented by all three; the beliefs, the values, and the habitual behaviors of the organization.

And, now the problem of focusing on culture and culture change became a dilemma. Organizations have stated values, but what happens when their behaviors aren’t consistent with those values. Is the culture more reflected by the behaviors or stated values? And, how do you address differences in behaviors between different functional areas with different leaders? For example, customer satisfaction is a common value for most organizations, yet in different departments you will find varying interpretations of what customer service means. In a hospital, providing good customer service may look very different in an emergency ward versus the rehabilitation department.

If we have this much difficulty determining what the culture of an organization means, then defining culture change is that much more complicated. Rather than focus on the culture of an organization, I realized that it was very feasible to begin with the culture of a team or functional area. Each team, based on what it needs to accomplish must have a culture that will support the team’s output. Now that is simple to understand.

While the organization might have a stated value regarding teamwork, each team would have to define what teamwork means in terms of their output and conditions. Using our hospital example, for an emergency department, speed is essential therefore making decisions has to be done quickly and in many cases without a need for consensus. Teamwork is more about cooperation and responsiveness than involvement as a team in the decision making process. However, in a rehabilitation unit, teamwork and the decision making process may involve a lot more input and collaborative consensus building.

For ten years, my focus in organizations was aligning a team’s culture with their desired goals and output. While the organization’s values were important to consider, it was absolutely critical that the culture of team support be the kind of results they needed to produce. Simple, clear, and measurable based on the output of the team. It was clear that changing a culture for a team meant articulating a new mindset for the people on the team about how to work together, implementing new behaviors that would support the mindset, establishing team habits that would result in a higher level of performance, and a higher sense of job satisfaction and morale. The alignment between the culture and a team’s performance creates a higher level of trust and safety in the workplace.

With this clear intention of changing a team’s culture through effective change management, leadership development, team building and measurement, culture change for a team was not only possible it was demonstrable and measurable.

Stay tuned for the Part 2 – The Shocking Discovery of a True Culture Change.

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