Bob moved to a new company, and it wasn’t too many days before he was invited to a meeting. The meeting announcement he received said that the meeting started at 9 am in room 105. At 8:55 he walked into an empty room. Frantic he went back to his computer to see if he had the details right. He checked and double checked and realized he was right – 9 am, room 105.
As he briskly walked back to the meeting room he was puzzled. He thought, “Why was the room empty, when it is almost time for the meeting to start?” He walked in at 9:02 and still no one was there. He sat there for a couple of minutes when he saw someone he recognized – who also was on the invitee list – walking by the door. Bob asked if the meeting was still on and if it was still for 9 am? Susan replied that the meeting was on, that Bob was in the right place and that “meetings never start on time here.” Sure enough, about 9:15 everyone, including Susan, arrived and the meeting got started.
That night Bob told his wife the story and related how different this was from his last company. “There, everyone was there five minutes early, because we always started on time.”
Bob is learning – first hand – about his new organizational culture – one quite different from what he is used to.
What is it?
Organizational culture – it’s something we don’t usually talk about, but we feel everyday. A culture is defined by what is expected of people and what is valued. It defines the norms of behavior and “how things are done” in an organization – whether that organization is a family, a team or a business.
To be successful in any setting it is important to understand the culture – this understanding allows us to navigate successfully through our day and be productive. Culture is important then because it defines the boundaries of behavior and performance, which allow us to produce rather than discuss “how” to do everything – it becomes a short hand way to get things done.
Cultures often develop from people’s early experiences in an organization and over time these experiences become the unspoken “rules of the road.” This is natural and usually just fine, except that sometimes what naturally develops or evolves isn’t exactly what we might want those “rules” to be. While they may have worked in the past, now they no longer serve the organization very well.
Since these rules develop gradually and become deeply engrained, what do we do if we want to change them?
In most organizations, if this question is asked at all, the answer would be to point to senior management. After all, they are those in charge of the organization – if something about the culture is holding the organization back, they should be responsible for fixing it.
This is a logical assessment, but woefully limited in application. In reality the culture doesn’t belong to a CEO or a senior leader. It belongs to everyone. And while there are cultural norms that spread across an entire organization, there often are differences within a department, a workgroup or a geographical region.
Perhaps there are things in your organization’s culture that you would like to change – Bob certainly preferred meetings that started on time, for example. So if the culture belongs to everyone, what can you do to change it for the better? What role can you play as an individual?
What You Can Do
Have a clear picture of what you desire. If, for example, you want to build a more positive and fun work environment, you need to be able to describe what you are looking for – not just think you will know it when you see it. Getting a clearer picture of what fun means in your situation is critical to you successfully adjusting the culture.
Understand the benefits of the change. You need to see the benefits clearly so that you will stay motivated to change, but also because others won’t change without understanding why. Define benefits organizationally and personally.
Communicate with others. Once you have a clear picture of what and why, it is time to help others see your new picture. How can you expect them to buck the trend of “how things are done” if they don’t see a better way?
Model the new behavior. Want the culture to be different? It starts with you. Gandhi said, “We must be the changes we want to see in the world.” These five steps form a specific plan that you can use to create the changes you want to see. But this fourth step is critical – you must embody and personify the new cultural norms yourself.
Begin to expect it of others. Unfortunately, this won’t be as easy as flipping a light switch. It will take some time for people to get onboard with a change even if they agree that it’s a positive step. You start by encouraging them, supporting successful change and recognizing progress.
You can do these things regardless of your position. Start small (like with yourself). Then expand it to those immediately around you. If you are a production worker your actions won’t affect the culture of your multi-national employer overnight, but they can begin to positively change your immediate work environment. Regardless of your role, you can positively impact the culture in which you work, but only if you are willing to stand up and be accountable.
Don’t shrug your shoulders; do roll up your sleeves. You are a co-owner of your organization’s culture, and you can make a difference.
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