Companies can tap their natural advantage when they focus on changing a few important behaviors, enlist informal leaders, and harness the power of employees’ emotions.

How often have you heard somebody — a new CEO, a journalist, a management consultant, a leadership guru, a fellow employee — talk about the urgent need to change the culture? They want to make it world-class. To dispense with all the nonsense and negativity that annoys employees and stops good intentions from growing into progress. To bring about an entirely different approach, starting immediately.
These culture critiques are as common as complaints about the weather — and about as effective. How frequently have you seen high-minded aspirations to “change the culture” actually manage to modify the way that people behave and the way in which they work? And how often have you seen noticeable long-term improvements?

What Is Corporate Culture?

At its worst, culture can be a drag on productivity. At its best, it is an emotional energizer. Here’s how companies can use it to gain a competitive advantage.

If the answer to these last two questions is “rarely,” it wouldn’t surprise us. We don’t believe that swift, wholesale culture change is possible — or even desirable. After all, a company’s culture is its basic personality, the essence of how its people interact and work. However, it is an elusively complex entity that survives and evolves mostly through gradual shifts in leadership, strategy, and other circumstances. We find the most useful definition is also the simplest: Culture is the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.
Made of instinctive, repetitive habits and emotional responses, culture can’t be copied or easily pinned down. Corporate cultures are constantly self-renewing and slowly evolving: What people feel, think, and believe is reflected and shaped by the way they go about their business. Formal efforts to change a culture (to replace it with something entirely new and different) seldom manage to get to the heart of what motivates people, what makes them tick. Strongly worded memos from on high are deleted within hours. You can plaster the walls with large banners proclaiming new values, but people will go about their days, right beneath those signs, continuing with the habits that are familiar and comfortable.
See: The wrong key performance indicators can drive the wrong behaviour
But this inherent complexity shouldn’t deter leaders from trying to use culture as a lever. If you cannot simply replace the entire machine, work on realigning some of the more useful cogs. The name of the game is making use of what you cannot change by using some of the emotional forces within your current culture differently.

Three dimensions of corporate culture affect its alignment: symbolic reminders (artifacts that are entirely visible), keystone behaviors (recurring acts that trigger other behaviors and that are both visible and invisible), and mind-sets (attitudes and beliefs that are widely shared but exclusively invisible). Of these, behaviors are the most powerful determinant of real change. What people actually do matters more than what they say or believe. And so to obtain more positive influences from your cultural situation, you should start working on changing the most critical behaviors — the mind-sets will follow. Over time, altered behavior patterns and habits can produce better results.
You may be asking: If it is so hard to change culture, why should we even bother to try? Because an organization’s current culture contains several reservoirs of emotional energy and influence. Executives who work with them can greatly accelerate strategic and operating imperatives. When positive culture forces and strategic priorities are in sync, companies can draw energy from the way people feel. This accelerates a company’s movement to gain competitive advantage, or regain advantages that have been lost.
Research shows that companies that use a few specific cultural catalysts — that is to say, those that use informal emotional approaches to influencing behavior — are significantly more likely to experience change that lasts. Of the companies that reported consciously using elements of their culture in Strategy&’s 2013 Global Culture & Change Management Survey, 70 percent said their firms achieved sustainable improvement in organizational pride and emotional commitment. That compares with 35 percent for firms that didn’t use culture as a lever. Although there is no magic formula, no brilliant algorithm, no numerical equation that will guarantee results, we have gleaned some valuable insights through decades of research and observation at dozens of enterprises, including some of the most successful companies in the world. By adopting the following principles, your organization can learn to deploy and improve its culture in a manner that will increase the odds of financial and operational success.
1. Work with and within your current cultural situations. Deeply embedded cultures cannot be replaced with simple upgrades, or even with major overhaul efforts. Nor can your culture be swapped out for a new one as though it were an operating system or a CPU. To a degree, your current cultural situation just is what it is — and it contains components that provide natural advantages to companies as well as components that may act as brakes. We’ve never seen a culture that is all bad, or one that is all good. To work with your culture effectively, therefore, you must understand it, recognize which traits are preeminent and consistent, and discern under what types of conditions these traits are likely to be a help or a hindrance. Put another way, there’s both a yin and a yang to cultural traits.
For example, a European pharmaceutical company with a solid product development pipeline had a tendency to be inward-looking. It had great execution capabilities and an excellent record of compliance with regulators around the world. However, when new products were ready to be launched, the company had a hard time marketing them to physicians and healthcare providers. Rather than bemoaning the company’s ingrained insularity — for example, its collective tendency to value the opinions of internal colleagues more than those of outside experts — the leaders decided to use this feature of its culture to its advantage. They set up a program through which employees were acknowledged and rewarded by colleagues for “going the extra mile” to support customers. By recognizing a new kind of internal authoritativeness, the company tapped a powerful emotional trigger already in place, and engendered a new (and strategically important) behavior in its sales force.
2.  Change behaviors, and mind-sets will follow. It is a commonly held view that behavioral change follows mental shifts, as surely as night follows day. This is why organizations often try to change mind-sets (and ultimately behavior) by communicating values and putting them in glossy brochures. This technique didn’t work well for Enron, where accounting fraud and scandal were part of everyday practice, even as the company’s espoused values of excellence, respect, integrity, and communication were carved into the marble floor of the atrium of its global headquarters in Houston. In reality, culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying. Trying to change a culture purely through top-down messaging, training and development programs, and identifiable cues seldom changes people’s beliefs or behaviors. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting. Changes to key behaviors — changes that are tangible, actionable, repeatable, observable, and measurable — are thus a good place to start. Some good examples of behavior change, which we’ve observed at a number of companies, relate to empowerment (reducing the number of approvals needed for decisions), collaboration (setting up easy ways to convene joint projects), and interpersonal relations (devising mutually respectful practices for raising contentious issues or grievances).

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