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Management Matters

Managing Culture Change

The Eight Culture Levers

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A great deal has been written about organizational culture over the years and the topic seems especially popular now. That said, I’m not sure managers are any more able to define “culture” than they ever were.

Too often, organizational culture is heard as a synonym for “employee morale” or “employee satisfaction”. We see this in articles that refer to the coffee bars and ping pong tables in some firms. This view holds that culture is anything that makes employees happy…or unhappy. While organizational culture and morale are related they aren’t the same thing at all. Morale is an outcome of culture just as increased hot dog sales at the ballpark is an outcome of fielding a good baseball team. Further, employee morale isn’t the most important outcome of organizational culture any more than hot dog sales is the most important outcome of a baseball team’s performance. Strategic advantage is the most important outcome of a strong, positive organizational culture.

Culture comprises behaviors that are consistent among members of the organization over time. These behaviors provide have visible evidence of the culture that exists within the organization. In my company, the President’s parking spot is marked and no one dares park in it even when they know I’m on vacation. In your company, employees park nearest the entrance in a “first-come-first-served” fashion. If you ( the President) are late, you park 50 yards away alongside the other latecomers. That’s a visible artifact of consistent behavior among members of the organization over time that tells observers a bit about our respective cultures.

Let’s imagine two companies — my widget-making company and your whatzis manufacturing company. My company has a “Fix the Blame” culture. Your company has a strong “Fix the Problem” culture. We can probably assume that employee morale is better at your company but let’s dig a bit deeper. What does Communications look like at the two companies? What does Decision Making look like? How about Innovation? Or Teamwork and Collaboration? Within which company is Teaching and Learning more effective? Which company is Managing Agreement better? Which company does a better job of Motivating for Performance? Finally, which firm is likely to be better at quick and effective Problem-Solving? The questions almost answer themselves, don’t they? Knowing only that one piece of information (Fix the Blame vs Fix the Problem), there’s a lot that we can say about the cultures at my company and yours. For each of these elements, it’s not difficult to call to mind specific behaviors that are consistent with either “Fix the Blame” or “Fix the Problem”.

Which company is most likely to have a strategic advantage in the marketplace? My guess is that you’ll bet against my “Fix the Blame” culture. And you’ll probably win that bet. A fair amount of research shows that a strong, positive culture is directly related to better organizational performance.

The most vital of visible behaviors lie within one or another of eight categories (I’ve actually named them above but here they are again as a list):

  • Motivating for Performance
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Problem Solving
  • Decision Making
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Innovation
  • Managing Agreement

I’ll refer to these eight elements as Culture Levers because they can be pushed/pulled by managers to change the organization’s culture. (We’ll get to just how managers can push/pull the levers in subsequent articles.) These eight Culture Levers have in common the fact that every organization engages in all of them to one extent or another. For example, an organization might Communicate well or it might Communicate badly but there’s no such thing as “no communication”. It might Motivate well or it might motivate badly but there’s no such thing as “no effort to motivate”. And so on through the other six Culture Levers.

This model of the eight Culture Levers has the advantage of being easy to assess the current state of the organization’s culture. We simply take our magnifying glass and look for visible cultural behaviors relevant to each Lever. The model also makes it easier to plan and execute culture change within the firm. We only need to reduce or eliminate the behaviors that we don’t want and put into practice the new ones that we do want. (I’ve oversimplified a bit, to be sure, but planning culture change is actually straightforward. Consistent and persistent follow-through on those plans is the challenging part.)

In subsequent articles, we’ll discuss how managers can use the Eight Culture Levers model to plan and manage change successfully. We’ll provide further descriptions of each of the eight Culture Levers but my guess is that you already have an idea of what all of them are getting at…none of you are wondering what “Communications” or “Decision Making” means, for example. So, here’s your homework: Draw a line down the middle of a sheet of notebook paper. For each of the Culture Levers, brainstorm some of the positive behaviors that members of your organization consistently manifest and write them on the left side of the paper. On the right, brainstorm, and list negative behaviors that you see or positive behaviors that are missing. If you’d like, put some of your observations in the comments. And join us for the rest of the articles in our series on Managing Culture Change.