Organizational culture is squishy. It’s elusive. It’s hard to define. Organizational culture is a living thing that is always changing. That also means it can be influenced – either positively or negatively. Organizations need to be thoughtful about developing their culture. That takes some expertise and intentionality in doing so.
Early on in my career a wise consultant told me it takes seven years to change a culture. In my 25 years of human resources, organizational change and leadership experience, I have found that to be true. You can certainly start to see the effects of intentional change earlier than that, but to really make a culture change stick, seven years is about right. True culture change won’t depend on a leader to sustain it. You’ll know when it sticks if a leader can walk away and the changes are lasting. They’ve become systematically embedded in what is happening throughout the organization. It takes intentional effort, consistency and time to make happen.
Defining Organizational Culture
Culture is largely defined by the behaviors of the individuals who work in the organization. It’s not defined by words on a wall or descriptions in a handbook, although many organizations try. Values do not equal culture, however ideally, they are aligned. Organizational culture is defined by systematic reinforcement of organizational values in messaging and behavior of the individuals that make up that culture and consistency of experience that individuals have within an organization.
In thinking about your organizational culture, consider the following examples:
All of these helps define the culture within your organization.
According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review article titled What is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care? “Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures. It prevents ‘wrong thinking’ and ‘wrong people’ from entering the organization in the first place. It says that organizational culture functions much like the human immune system in preventing viruses and bacteria from taking hold and damaging the body. The problem, of course, is that organizational immune systems can also attach agents of needed change, and this has important implications for on-boarding and integrating people into organizations.”
This, of course, is what makes culture change so difficult and time consuming. Organizational cultures are powerful. And changing them is very difficult. But it’s sometimes necessary, especially when the culture is keeping the organization from functioning optimally. This is what can be so discouraging when you hire new people with lots of great energy and ideas and they come into a culture that’s not supportive of those new ideas or that may be toxic and those new employees become the “wrong people” with the “wrong thinking.” If the culture is not open to them, they will leave and the culture will persist when, in fact, it’s the culture that needs to change. And that’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s possible if tackled in a systematic way.
What is the ideal organizational culture? There isn’t one. Each organization needs to determine that for itself based on its’ own vision and values. However, strong, effective cultures have some things in common:
And those effective cultures, lead to these business outcomes:
If your company’s culture isn’t performing optimally in the above areas, it’s time to consider what needs to be done about it and really tackle the issue systematically.
Is it time to take a step back and assess your organizational culture? You may need some outside expertise to help you do that. A Culture Developer is someone like me who understands organizational culture and how to assess what’s working in an organization, in terms of culture and organizational dynamics, and what barriers might be in the way of making a company great. Often times, bringing in someone from the outside that can lend an objective perspective and ask the right questions can help get to the root of potential barriers much more quickly.
I can come into your organization and conduct a culture assessment, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your existing organizational culture and, along with your team, help you create a vision for what you want your organizational culture to be. Perhaps your desired state is not too far off from your current state. Or, perhaps you have a long way to go. Either way, we will identify the gaps, determine what needs to be done to fill those gaps, define some quick wins, and create a road map to get your company (and the people in it) to the culture you desire!
Don’t let the idea that it may take seven years to change a culture scare you. You can be well on your way to getting there with a short investment of time and intentional focus. It will require consistency of effort, messaging and role modeling of leadership to reinforce the desired changes, but before you know it you will be well on your way. And I will help you every step of the way! Creating a great workplace culture is well worth the time and effort! And your employees, your customers and your bottom line will thank you!
Contact me today at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation to discuss your organizational needs.
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Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.