Best Practices To Guide Your Workplace Cultural Transformation: Lessons From Real-World Case Studies

Multi-Level, Mutually Reinforcing Culture Change
Summary: Like the proverbial iceberg, much organizational culture lies under the surface. It’s hard to see clearly and even harder to shift.

Multi-Level, Mutually Reinforcing Culture Change

If you’re trying to transform your organization’s culture, let these real-world lessons from over two decades working with clients be your guide.

Lesson 1: You Need Vision And A Plan

Culture is a complex web of interconnecting stories, images, systems, and behaviors. To transform culture, you need both a vision to steer by and a multi-level change plan with interlocking, mutually reinforcing layers.

Elements of a successful change program include:

  • A clear vision of the new culture—where you’re going and why
  • Clear messaging with both visuals and words, delivered multiple times via multiple channels
  • Alignment of systems with new cultural values
  • Change champions and/or trained facilitators embedded in the organization
  • Employee training to support new behaviors
  • Feedback loops to track results and adjust course as needed

Developing a change management plan starts with asking questions. This helps you both gather information and think things through. In the process, you’ll communicate with key stakeholders, recruit change champions, and gauge the scale of the effort so you can budget time, staff, and money accordingly. A good change management plan is imperative to coordinate efforts throughout implementation.

Here’s a Communication Plan template—one aspect of a full change management plan.

Lesson 2: Tell A Story

Most culture change initiatives are motivated by a desire for better performance outcomes. Companies usually frame performance outcomes as goals: higher productivity, increased customer loyalty, more diversity. Goals are necessary for measuring progress and achievement, for work planning, for project and business management.

But to inspire employees to strive for those goals, to empower them within a framework of cultural values, nothing beats a strong story.

Stories offer:

  • Dense meaning and symbolism
  • Emotional resonance
  • Heroes and heroines to identify with
  • Defining moments of failure and success and lessons learned
  • Embedded values conveyed by protagonists’ choices and by who and what is celebrated

Stories give us rallying points, common identity, a feeling of belonging. A single powerful story provides a rich central source for all culture transformation communications, both in visuals and in words.

An existing story can be retold with a different emphasis to bridge between the old culture and the new. Origin stories are great candidates for this. While events remain the same, emphasis can be updated, from who is included to what values are celebrated, and what this means for where you are going next.

To illustrate the power of story, here’s an inside peek at how our focus on story evolved while developing a promotional piece for a wonderful non-profit, Social Motion Skills.

Lesson 3: Update Your Systems To Make Culture Change Real—And Credible

Humans love a good story. But employees are naturally skeptical of culture initiatives that are just talk. To make your new culture real, it must be reflected in organizational systems—especially systems that concern money and recognition. At the employee level, that means recruiting, compensation, career development, and advancement. At the organizational level, that means budget allocation, investments, acquisitions, and divestment.

But alignment can be tricky. For example, when a global energy company implemented a safety system, it tied performance bonuses to the new zero-tolerance policy. The stated intention was to reward oil rig managers and their teams for every quarter and year without a safety incident. But the effect was to put tremendous pressure on all employees not to report safety incidents. This fed employees’ perception that reporting was about appearances, not improvement, and certainly not about employee wellbeing.

Credible system changes must produce the intended effects, not just sound good. Involve people from the affected group in any system redesign, and institute a feedback loop to improve it after implementation.

Lesson 4: Get Specific…Really Specific

Business performance is the accumulation of individual employees’ decisions and behaviors. To fully achieve desired performance outcomes, we must drive change down to the individual and team levels. For that, employees need answers to this question: “What am I supposed to do differently, and how do I do it?”

Most cultural transformations require people to work together differently. With team-based experiential learning, teammates learn by doing together. They experience the desired behavior and positive outcomes, building trust in the change and in each other as they go. This approach is highly effective for embedding transformative change at the individual and team levels. Learn more about experiential learning to transform teams here.

For example, many organizations want to take diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond raising employee awareness and improving diversity in recruiting but don’t know how to make a difference in employees’ daily work experience. To accomplish that, employees need:

  • Explicit group norms at the team level (agreement on how they will act together)
  • Knowledge and skills for new behaviors
  • Techniques and step-by-step procedures
  • Models to show the new behaviors in action (facilitators, scenarios)
  • Practice with teammates

Here's more on how to use all these elements in an interlocking, mutually reinforcing system to move diversity, equity, and inclusion from concept to habit.

Lesson 5: Everyone Owns Culture

Leaders shape culture, but they don’t own it. Culture is inherently social. It only becomes viable when many employees across an organization hold it in common.

People take on culture when they feel connected to it, especially when they actively participate in moving it forward. Encourage employee participation from day one. For our clients, we suggest that one key message to include in their communication plan is “What can you do?” Give people concrete steps they can take, connections they can make, resources they can learn from—active ways they can be part of the change and make a difference.

You’ll know a cultural change has stuck when you hear someone tell a new recruit, “This is how we do things here,” or “That’s part of who we are”—and they mean it.

When the opposite happens—when you find discrepancies between the culture you’re striving for and what employees say is actually true—that’s valuable information for tuning your change efforts. Seek such discrepancies systematically with feedback loops such as surveys, focus groups, and informal conversations.

Lesson 6: Get Outside Perspectives and Support

Like goldfish in their bowl, humans swim in culture without having to think about it, usually without even seeing it. That invisibility makes daily life easier, but it makes changing one’s own culture from inside the fishbowl exceedingly challenging.

An outside perspective can help.

Insiders bring deep knowledge of the culture as it is now, including points of pride and sensitivity, and what might resonate with employees. This is critical to bridging from the culture that was to the culture that will be.

Outsiders bring observations and question assumptions that may be invisible (or sacred) to insiders. An outside consultant should also bring insights and experience with cultural transformation as a process, tools to support successful change, and expertise to develop effective communication and training programs.

A strong change team will include both insiders and outsiders to see many perspectives and make the most informed, appropriate, and ultimately successful culture transformation plans and deliverables.

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