The Not-So-Simple Secrets of Successful Culture Change

By Chris Cancialosi

As the saying goes, even the longest journey starts with just one step.

Over the years, we’ve engaged with many clients who are dedicated to creating large-scale, significant, and sustainable culture change in their organizations in an effort to drive success. Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned executives believe there is a silver bullet — some grand gesture of change — that will accomplish their goals.

While significant changes can and do drive sustainable performance improvements, truly transformational change results from a few deceptively simple things.

Large-Scale Culture Change Begins With Little Victories

Large change is comprised of MANY small changes, or what I call little victories.

Think of any truly transformational change in society that has sustained the test of time, and I will show you a series of seemingly small steps that built upon each other toward the final outcome; events that very often inspired others to create little victories of their own. Those instances challenge the underlying beliefs and assumptions that people hold to be true about the current state.

One person can rarely create and sustain organizational change that is truly transformational, however. It takes dialogue that creates a spark in people to step up and do something differently themselves. Engaging everyone in not only having a voice but having a responsibility to drive small change at their level helps build the momentum and sustainability of what could be.

Find ways to communicate the little victories to the masses. Let the positive change go viral throughout your organization. Transformational change achieves terminal velocity through the stories that people tell. These stories bring change to life and if they are capitalized on, they reinforce the desired behavior change.

Change From the Top Down or Bottom Up?

The answer is: Yes.

Decades of leadership development research and common sense tells us that individuals at the highest levels of the organization have the most influence, as a whole, in the shortest time. But what about the tens, hundreds, or thousands of employees that keep the organization moving forward each and every day? Are they able to influence culture change based on sheer number and longevity?

Influence works in both directions, so the alignment of energy moving up and down the organization is key to sustainable culture change. At gothamCulture, we use a “top-down, bottom-up” approach to culture change. The goal of this strategy is to create an open workplace culture that values employees’ opinions and closes the distance between the frontline and executives.

It isn’t enough to set leadership loose with a plan to communicate the strategy of the organization and hope that everyone follows. Leaders might end up excitedly running up the metaphorical mountain of change and looking back to realize that no one is following. By the same token, it isn’t enough to provide a survey to engage employees without leaders taking action to address survey results.

Here are some “top-down, bottom-up” lessons we’ve learned over the years:

  1. Communicate strategically to inform everyone of happenings around the organization. Designate a small team to act as the nucleus to drive communication efforts and translate information coming from the top and bottom. A dynamic communication system is critical to a lean and nimble organization that can compete in today’s business environment.
  2. Ask employees how to move the organization forward and carry out the initiatives worth pursuing. They are closest to the issues that may derail your plans.
  3. Provide “face time” for the frontline to meet executives and share concerns and ideas. This doesn’t mean a token executive appearance at a ‘town hall’; we’re talking about creating space for these groups to roll up their sleeves and work together.
  4. Listen to the workforce with sincerity and empathy. Today’s employees expect their jobs to be fulfilling, challenging, and worth investing time into (which is often more important to retention than compensation packages).

At the end of the day, silver bullets are just about as rare as werewolves. Real, transformational change is often a complex process requiring careful forethought, the investment of time and energy, and the willingness to let people take ownership and collaborate along the way.


Originally published at www.forbes.com on February 21, 2017.

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