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  • Writer's pictureEndring

Confounded By Culture Change? Here's How To Focus.

Updated: May 29, 2023

If you are feeling like you have a culture challenge - or even a culture crisis - you’re not alone.

It’s happening in almost every organization.

The past 2-3 years of disruption are probably making silos and fractures in your organization more visible. People aren’t on the same page. Productivity isn’t where you want it to be, nor is collaboration.

You might be seeing a decline in cohesion and belonging. What’s important to your people and talent is changing, and they’re looking for more meaning.

If - on top of all this - your organization is also re-looking at its strategy and calling for some significant changes in direction, you need the culture that will enable it.

That’s why culture is very much at the top of the people agenda today - or, increasingly, the whole organization’s agenda.

Unfortunately, a lot of organizations don’t know how to drive culture change - or how to make sure the culture they aspire to is actually sticking.

Today's post is Part 1 of a deeper dive on culture change: ways to look at culture, assess culture, and shift culture to make sure it’s creating the environment for your people - and your strategy - to thrive.

Culture is Something You Experience

While culture shift is complex, it isn’t rocket science.

It can be a bit overwhelming, though.

There are a lot of common misconceptions about shifting culture. Here are the ones we come across most often:

  • Culture change can simply be communicated: Declarations, internal website posts, a brief regular mention by the CEO = done.

  • Culture = Engagement Scores: Of course great cultures have engaged employees, but engagement is an outcome. Attributes that influence culture are more nuanced.

  • Culture includes everything people-related: Culture is not the ‘kitchen sink’. You need to be laser-focused on what will drive the shift.

  • Culture and strategy are two different things: They are highly interdependent and need to be in lock step with each other. (Our post last week was focused on how strategy and culture are a Power Duo - you can’t focus on just one or the other to shift your organization’s focus.)

  • Culture has a ‘life of its own’ and can’t really be shifted: OK, culture is pretty organic - fair enough. But that doesn’t mean it’s some amorphous, unmoveable ‘thing’ that can’t be tackled.

We’re strong believers that culture is something you can shift, and that the best way to look at culture is based on experiences. Robert Richman said it best in The Culture Blueprint: "Culture is a feeling." And feelings come from impactful experiences. So: experiences build and shape culture.

Here's a great example: One of our favourite exercises when we start talking about culture is to have people share an experience where they really felt that the culture was showing up and ‘firing on all cylinders’. The stories people tell are almost always highly emotional - they involve things like herculean challenges, unexpected recognition, amazing teamwork, bonds that were forged in the fire, and deep insights about the organization and its purpose. And the themes that emerge from these stories illuminate key culture characteristics and - what we often like to talk about - Moments that Matter: when experiences create emotions, these are the key moments where culture is cemented.

The Empathy Map

Building on the concept of culture as experience, we want to share one of the key ways we look at culture shift.

Borrowing from a common Design Thinking framework, we’re big fans of the Empathy Map. It helps you look at the totality of someone’s experience in terms of four key dimensions: What they HEAR, what they SEE, what they THINK & FEEL, and what they DO.

(Note: there is another component called ‘Pains and Gains’ which gets at people’s obstacles and needs, that can further refine sub-cultures - but lets keep it simple today :)

It helps us really step into people’s shoes and look at how culture is experienced today, and what is needed for a shift to happen.

If you look at culture with experience as the anchor, it will become clearer where you need to target your efforts - and what it is you should really be measuring.

Let’s explore!

1: What they HEAR

While culture isn’t only about communication, it’s still a very important aspect of how people engage with your organization’s views and perspectives on culture.

There are three key areas to focus on to get a sense of what’s happening now, and where to focus efforts to make sure the message is clear:

  • The Company Narrative: There needs to be a clear and well-integrated story about the organization and what is driving the evolution of the culture. It needs to bring the aspirational culture to life. It needs to recognize the journey, it needs to tie into the organization’s core purpose, and it needs to be clear how it will enable the strategy. Ideally, it’s also linked to driving customer goals and outcomes.

  • Senior Leader Voices: When employees hear leaders speaking often and transparently about the culture, it lends weight and legitimacy. But it’s most powerful when it isn’t done as a ‘standalone’ but rather when they relate it to their role, to the business results, and to the customer experience. (A bonus? When leaders don’t just share success stories, but also make themselves vulnerable and share when they’ve struggled living up to the culture - and what they did to make it right.)

  • Team and Peer Discussions: Teams need to spend time talking about what the desired culture means for them. What are some of the challenges for this particular team? What are we going to do to bring it to life? How will we call it out if it’s not working? When people hear managers and colleagues talking seriously about culture, they’re more likely to reflect and deeply process what it means to them.

2. What they SEE

Most organizations underestimate how much people see and the impact it has.

This is where authenticity and followthrough really matter.

We’ve all experienced something like this: We’ve heard about the fresh culture and values. The right words have been said. Then a person who is well known for getting results, but equally well known for NOT living the culture, gets promoted.

“Well, well,” we think, “so it’s all bullshit.”

Compare it to this scenario: The culture and values are launched. The right words are said. And next, one of those leaders who deliver but don’t live the culture is - gasp! - let go.

“Wow!” we say. “I guess this culture stuff is really serious business!”

Decision-making needs to be aligned with the culture at all levels. People decisions are often the most visible, so you need to quickly embed culture-based decisioning in core processes like hiring, promotions, or performance management (not just WHAT you get done, but HOW you do it).

Your people will expect to see that culture really is impacting how they’re guided, how they get work done, and how they and others are treated.

It also should be apparent in business dealings. An organization that has committed to embrace diversity and sustainability needs to start looking very hard at the partners it works with, and for example, drop them if they don’t follow ESG principles or don’t bring diverse deal teams to the table.

This level of authenticity, transparency and alignment will have a huge impact on whether your people have meaningful experiences of the culture, or see it as a hollow promise.

3. What they THINK and FEEL

When people experience the organization truly standing behind and embracing the culture, they will start to feel that culture.

They will start to feel safe. Safe to voice their opinions, safe to challenge when something isn’t aligned to the values, safe from the fear of consequences when they weigh the culture equally with business results.

They will feel like their experience lines up with the culture promise. They will feel proud to be associated with a great company, and feel excited and energized about working there. They will feel like they want to be a part of the culture and the organization.

At the same time, it will influence their mindsets.

They will start to build a certain set of assumptions - and they will trust those assumptions to inform how they act, because they see and hear and feel that this is how things are done here (and also how things are NOT done here).

They will trust that the way they think is how others think. They belong. They fit. They are with like-minded people.

These thoughts and feelings are what strengthens the bond with the organization, with their colleagues, and with their teams.

4. What they SAY and DO

The way people think and feel will drive what they do.

The more they experience the shift in culture and the new behaviours, the more they will opt in to the aspirational culture. And the more they are supported in bringing it to life themselves, the more they will feel the culture.

They will want to go beyond ‘opting in’ to the culture to sharing the culture with others and making it stronger. They know how the culture feels, so they will naturally look at how the work they do can make their partners and customers feel that culture too.

They will start to embed the values and behaviours into their day-to-day roles and even informal interactions.

And it’s a flywheel: The more they talk about it and act on it, the more others see and hear the new culture coming to life, so it keeps building momentum.

This is where there’s a real benefit to culture being organic and having a life of its own - it sort of goes viral, and perpetuates itself. That’s when it becomes really strong, and truly becomes ‘how people act when no-one is looking’.

Summing It Up

Culture can be changed, and shifted to line up with the strategy of your organization.

Looking at culture through the lens of experiences helps you not only understand what’s influencing the culture, but how you can influence it.

In upcoming posts, we will look at some of the key steps to help gauge the alignment of strategy and culture, as well as some of the approaches we’ve found helpful when activating and sustaining the culture change.

Thanks for reading. See you again next week! (Feel free to subscribe and/or reach out to us.)

We hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Whenever you're ready, there are more ways we can help you:

  1. Run a Strategy Sprint with your leadership team to define your next innovative and winning strategy.

  2. Help you with your Future Culture Design and a strategy to shift your culture and transform employee experiences.

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