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  • Writer's pictureNeil Keeler

Culture: the residue of success?

Updated: Mar 20

Culture - The way we do things around here or something that grows in a petri dish?

Definition: The norms of behaviour and shared values of a group of people.

Showing culture graphically in 63 seconds was tricky, which in itself makes a good point, culture is rarely noticeably visible, its especially tricky to spot for those immersed within it, yet it is incredibly influential.

You could argue my video clip shows some climatic condition (wind mostly!) affecting the potential performance and movement of our weight. ‘Climate’ is often mistaken for culture, it is however more transient, usually clearly visible and volatile (storms rarely do their work silently) it can also be highly localised.

People sit out the weather as they know it will blow over, cultures can last for generations so we should start by accepting culture is highly pervasive.

The big clue is climate is nearly always an external, environmental driver, culture is of course an internal factor, a reaction to the perceived benefit of an action.

Culture is extremely powerful for these reasons:

  • The individuals joining a group are selected and indoctrinated to support its ongoing existence - without them even realising!

  • Culture is reinforced by the repeated, daily, hourly actions of hundreds or thousands of people - we are hard wired to complying with group behaviour and habit making culture a slippery foe.

  • It was formed and is irrevocably aligned to the performance of the past - woven into the corporate fabric by the reactions of leaders (‘the powerful’) to what really worked (or maybe what really didn’t!) previously.

  • Culture is self sustaining, ‘self healing’ and operates (usually) without any conscious consideration or reasoned review of it.

  • Culture can kill an idea, suggestion or even the most modest change before it’s even vocalised.

Drucker is commonly misquoted (no evidence he actually said it) in saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” notwithstanding that, it’s a powerful comment that I would agree with.

After coaching hundreds of people, I would support the premise that in the same way an individual with a goal to achieve needs to conquer their own unhelpful thinking, doubts, critical inner voice, doubts and beliefs, to really be able to progress, an organisation faces exactly the same process. The collective self belief is the culture.

In an individual coaching session I would seek to help my coachee unweave some of these beliefs, challenge them, review perceived failures and unpack (always) some powerful learning. To imaging and visualise something more helpful to their goals and what might assist that.

Go Mad Thinking evidence this very well when they extrapolate their Results framework (a personal effectiveness framework, focused on an individuals thinking) into an organisational equivalent - The Leadership Framework.

From self belief at an individual level it becomes culture (the collective belief of all of us) so can it be similarly addressed at an organisational change level?

How can we support Leaders with cultural change then?

Acknowledge the complexity and scale of working with culture will be to a different timeline. Whatever you do will impact culture, even doing nothing - often a great choice, sometimes a silent response condones.

Leaders can strongly influence, with story telling, creating new artefacts, symbolism and changing ‘rituals’.

Engaging significant numbers of your people in discussing, reviewing and identifying an aspirational culture ,can be highly effective in motivating and energising change.

In placing culture prominently on the table for discussion leaders need demonstrate their integrity to looking at changing it - what they must of course also do is evidence their full commitment to addressing it. In two cultural inquiry exercises at Southend we galvanised a high percentage of people to focus on, challenge and suggest improvements to the councils culture.

As long as those sessions are perceived to be serious (i.e. will deliver changes) this can be extremely powerful.

Schein suggests Leaders must pay attention to different things, react in different ways, especially to critical incidents/crises. Crises reveal underlying core values of a culture. By their nature a crisis offers every leader an opportunity to influence their organisations culture in a negative or positive way.

What do you measure and seek to control? What is most important will no doubt be most measured and the focus of most conversations, is it the right stuff?

How do you reward people and clarify the new criteria for the change? These conversations will very much focus on what is treasured is measured. Be cautious for unintended consequences if measure don’t align to the principles of your new culture e.g. don’t talk customer satisfaction is now critical yet still reward calls handled/sales made by volume.

Leaders must role model any new aspirant behaviours of the desired culture.

Identify, clarify and validate your values so their alignment and contribution to the new culture is clear.

The people you now bring into the organisation, the promotion of those within and the departure/churn of others all offer opportunities to put a face to the new culture.

Physical space, systems and organisational design (structures and reporting lines) can all make a significant contribution.

When an organisation has a collective self belief of its nature it is of course routinely reinforced and reinvigorated by the confirmation bias that we can all suffer from. Progress will be based on a marathon not a sprint! The more people you have calling halt on those types of statements the better, that can then become woven into your new culture as a very health check.

Hope this has got you thinking and next week we are looking at the fulcrum that all organisational performance rests upon - employee engagement.

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Welcome to my blog

Hope you will find something here to really get you thinking. Topics will be on any of my passions: Organisational Development, Leadership, Employee Engagement, Culture Change, Organisational Improvement and Transformation are the key themes.  

If you have a topic or suggestion for a blog, or maybe you'd like to do a guest spot on here (!) drop me a line. I'd also like to share some of my experiences in moving from 32 years of working in the public sector to starting my own business!

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