Navigating the Bermuda Triangle of Change – Culture

This is the final post in this series. The original post is here, and you can also click to the first two elements, Policy and Tradition.

Why does everything have to come in threes? If you only had to deal with Policy and Tradition, I think change would be so much more manageable. But Culture, that adds a whole new layer of difficulty.

Tradition, or “the way we do it here” is easier to deal with than culture. The way we do things isn’t always about culture, it’s more about “the way I learned it”. There are cultural elements, but tradition is still easier to overcome than culture.

The biggest reason: Culture is so much of who we are that it requires fundamental change. Sometime to the point of changing leaders or team members. Sometimes the requirement to change is so fundamental that it just isn’t within the individual to make the change. That’s when you know the issue is rooted in culture.  Tradition can sometimes morph into culture. It takes on a value that is so important to a person that they are unwilling to compromise.

There are times when Policy and Culture actually work against one another. Anyone who has worked in HR for a number of years can tell a story that has this basic plotline:

  • The company considers itself a family culture, a caring culture.
  • An employee who is part of the family has a tragic circumstance. It could be disease, work or non-work injury, or a death in the family.
  • Company policy limits the potential aid the company will provide, but employees feel its not enough and go the the HR manager
  • Debate in management takes place, with the biggest argument being “If we do this for this guy, everyone will expect the same treatment, we will have re-written our policy”
  • Then, depending on the quality of the arguments, a decision is made one way of the other, and life slowly returns to normal.

No matter the outcome, culture becomes modified. Either this company is now seen as more caring by their employees, or colder than they thought.

Culture stands on its own, grown from traditions and modified by policy. We wouldn’t need policy if the right culture was in place. We could count on each other to do what was right. As an organization grows, its culture becomes fragmented, and policies grow out of inconsistent management.

If you are trying to bring about change in a large organization, this compounds the problem. You may be trying to change the culture, but there are many cultures, most of which will at first attempt to reject change, like an organ donation the body has rejected.

But it can be done. Here are a few key steps.

  • Get a clear picture of what the new culture is and why the organization must adopt it.
  • Immerse the top leaders in the primary elements of the desired culture, allowing them the opportunity to help shape it.
  • Get the messages lined up, and include some symbolic actions. If we want our teams to work virtually, get them the equipment they need to do so. If you want people to spend less time on administrative tasks, put some lean teams together to simplify work processes. If you want everyone to be more cost conscious, remove some visible executive perks.
  • Have the leaders commit to conversations in their teams about the desired culture. Have them seek feedback on what they can do to help promote the change.
  • Be a relentless listener. Ask what else can be done to help people and listen to the responses. Act on them visibly. Find something about the current culture that bothers people and shift it with the changes.
  • Show the impact when reporting on business progress. How is the change helping improve the business result?

Change is hard. For most employees, a change in ownership or loss of job is the hardest reality they may have to face. Internal change is emotionally tough if not just plain hard.

HR is often in the role of leading change. If you think about it in an organized way, identify the policy, tradition, and culture barriers that can get in the way, you have a good chance of developing solutions that will stick.

This is where HR can shine. We are not guardians of culture, we are experts at understanding how culture can be optimized for the business need and the corporate mission. Find the tools and make it so.


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