How to Launch a Culture Change

In this day of tight labor markets, many companies are looking to their culture as a way of attracting and retaining talented employees. The question is where to begin. For some, they will look to enhancing employee benefits and offering more flexible work rules. Others will focus on the physical workspace, creating more open space where workers can congregate and interact. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but they fall far short of what we identify as real culture change. 

Real culture change has to do with how employees feel about their company, their jobs, and how they are treated by management. We believe culture change begins with the recognition that people want to work in an environment that believes in them, trusts them, and respects them. Most employees are driven by what Abraham Maslow, in his famous hierarchy of needs, called “self-esteem” needs.” Employees want to be recognized for their achievements. They want to feel appreciated for what they bring to the organization. And they want to be challenged in a way that allows them to grow in responsibility, knowledge, and opportunity. 

It is not just attention to ego needs that creates a healthy organizational culture. Employees also want to be part of a winning team. Companies that grow and prosper offer more opportunities for personal growth. Companies with purpose and vision will find greater employee buy-in to company goals. It is the combination of attending to the psychological needs of workers and company purpose and success that make for healthy cultures.

While we can identify what a healthy culture looks like, how to begin the journey to attain one can be a challenge. We will offer three ways to launch a culture change. These are not mutually exclusive but intended to help identify ways of starting the journey.

1.     Create a baseline of your current culture. In our book, Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, we offer several attributes that can be included in a culture survey. There are also published culture surveys available. It is important to include areas that you want to work on in the culture change. After you have established a baseline, you can begin to initiate the changes you want to make.

2.     A second approach would be to create a set of values that will guide employee and management behavior. One company, Shuman Plastics, in Buffalo, New York, a 70 year-old, value-driven company, wanted to clarify its values and better communicate them to employees. The company plans to roll out one value per month and focus on implementation with examples of how the value was demonstrated in practice throughout that month. 

3.     A third approach is to identify behaviors that are central to the new culture. By focusing on behaviors, all employees will be aware of how they need to act. Unlike a value that is abstract and hard to define, behaviors are clearer and easier to understand. A few authors, such as David Friedman of Culture by Design, are strong advocates of the behavior approach to defining culture. 

Whichever approach is chosen, it is important to know that once an organization has embarked on culture change, there is no turning back. It represents a serious commitment by management and employees. Not “walking the talk” will cause any attempt at culture change to backfire and create a negative culture that will lead to outcomes that neither management nor employees want.

Are you ready for culture change in your organization?

Alan Weinstein