The First Rule of Culture Change… Don’t Talk About Culture Change.

Corporate culture is quickly evolving into a tangible, manageable component of business strategy and performance. It’s being discussed in Forbes, and by industry leaders like Deloitte.

As Organizational Effectiveness practitioners, we couldn’t be happier about this. In fact, as I wrote previously, we believe it’s about time.

However, as we engage with more and more companies that have taken the first steps into addressing organizational culture, we’re seeing a trend that needs to be addressed.

In short: They’re detaching Culture from Strategy without even knowing it.

While these companies are proactively looking at culture for the right reasons — employee engagement for performance improvement and innovation — they’re talking way too much about “Culture Change” as they do it. In almost putting Culture on a pedestal, they’re treating Culture as new functional aspect of the business plan, like Finance, or Operations.

These are companies that, with the best of intentions, are formally or informally “branding” their culture change efforts, tools, and results only to effectively disconnect operating culture from business execution. This is the exact opposite of what organizational culture change is all about.

Case-in-point, one current client has been measuring and pursuing a more achievement-based culture for over three years with hardly any measurable improvement. These poor results fly in the face of the organization’s continuous trainings, messaging, and specialty teams, all of which are focused on shifting the culture.

Our message to them is that Organizational Culture Change isn’t about Culture… it’s about doing real work differently for better results. Efforts to cultivate a Culture that sustains performance should be about strong strategy execution through engaged employees — not solely about moving the needle on a Pulse survey.

Organizations now identify Culture as a valuable issue to understand, address and attempt to manage. That’s a good thing. However, when organizations begin to measure and track culture, using culture-specific tools and approaches, there is a vocabulary and perspective about “Culture” that can be generated that inadvertently defines Culture as a separate “it,” ostensibly and ironically helping to put Culture in its own silo.

When an organization uses tools and methods that measure and define culture with shapes, colors, numbers, or letters, we see the workforce adopt that nomenclature as how to talk about and manage culture. “Our culture is a number.” “Your acting like a shape.” “That effort was managed like this color.”

This is understandable.

If a Culture measurement effort identifies a desired behavior or factor as being “Octagon” behaviors, we tend to discuss, “How can we bring the Octagon in on this?” or, “You’re not being very Octagonal.” We get it — these shortcuts help us to make that aspect of culture tangible and enables workers to name it as they work with it. But it also establishes a duality to the culture when that’s the last thing we want.

By “talking” about culture as if it is a standalone aspect of organizational life, we’re robbing culture change of its power to improve the business.

Change That Works

In order for real change to be effective, the discussion needs to connect the process to the real behaviors that are being measured and how they play out during real work. If “the Octagon” is what we’re after and the Octagon measures our ability to plan work in a quality way, to seek out other’s opinions, or to listen better, we can do those things. We can’t be a “better” Octagon, but we need to discuss planning, collaboration, and respect.

This misuse of vernacular is not the only contributing factor driving a formal separation of culture from other parts of the business. When companies establish “culture teams” and try to manage and change culture with “Culture Events” or untethered assessments and team building, can push the connection between organizational culture and our daily work farther and farther apart.

That makes everything harder.

Culture change is about doing our work differently to get a different result. It’s up to everyone and is driven by managers and leaders getting work done differently through their people. It’s not about being polite, or blissfully happy, or making things easy. It’s also not about free lunch, or foosball tables, or dogs in the office, as the brilliant Ben Horowitz recently shared.

It’s about alignment and business results.

It’s about pursuing goals and solving problems through diverse and engaged employees who are intrinsically motivated to improve business performance. It’s about quality strategic execution.

This means that, while we may need the “Octagon” to begin to help us begin to understand Culture, it is more important that everyone understand the real behaviors that define “Octagon” and figure out how to do our day jobs with those in mind.

It also means that Culture is everyone’s job.

On the flip side, we’ve had one client identify the critical, real-world behaviors that exist in their “Octagon” but leaders and managers discuss how they will engage teams, to solve business challenges, using those behaviors. They don’t lead with the assessment vernacular or state that, “In wanting to shift our culture, we’re going to…” They simply address business challenges in new ways, with diverse groups.

We’re not saying you can never talk about culture — of course you’ll have to in order to understand and manage it — but we are suggesting you make it real once you’ve started working with it. The idea of the Octagon (or “yellow behaviors,” “Q behaviors,” etc…) is the training wheels for the leaders of change to establish what they’re measuring, managing and changing. They need to translate that into the daily conversations they have about executing on strategy and tactics with new approaches and behaviors in a way that is easily understood.

Establishing new expectations around work, using clear and common descriptors, and giving quality feedback about what is working and what could improve is what allows us to change our way of work rather than adding a whole new parallel version to our daily work life that we have to figure out on our own.

That’s why, for us, the first rule of Culture Change is, don’t talk about Culture Change. (At least not too much!)

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.