Why culture change fails

Companies are making many different attempts to change their cultures as they realise that it has become critical if they want to survive in their rapidly evolving markets.

Why culture change fails

When dealing with corporate culture change, companies usually choose among three main strategies. Every one of them has obvious benefits but often is badly implemented because the overall logic of culture change is not understood. One of the usual trap is that culture change is often too directive, and directing hundreds or thousands of people to behave differently, to think differently, to make different decisions, to have risk mindset… becomes an impossible task. Here we’ll explore the three usual ways to change organisational culture follow, see their benefits, and why they fail. This will lead us in a follow up article to open a different approach more rooted in how the organisation’s DNA and its culture intertwine.

“Be an entrepreneur” – the behaviour focus

This is the current mantra of any well thinking corp in 2017. Here, the culture shift is heavily (if not solely) focused on an incantative behaviour change.

Following this mantra, organisations who wish to evolve decide that they need to behave more like startups. Startups are innovative, hence if we want to be innovative too we must act like so. It even does make some sense in a soft cargo-cult way. And so, in the past decade, new leadership models have emerged with sexy buzzwords such as “intrapreneurs” (I’ve used it myself… guilty), lean principles to mirror what is seen in startups, and management by walking around (yes, this is a thing). 

Organisations also follow this path for a solid reason: changing employees and leaders’ behaviours is observable and measurable, and it does have a direct impact on performance.

Decision makers and HR can elaborate a list of expected behaviours that would benefit and support the company’s goals, and that would also reflect society’s and market’s evolution. This list which can become a nicely organised model, is then shared throughout the company as a reference for competencies developments: “this is the competencies you need to develop, how we need you I’ll to behave, who we need you to be”.

It usually births a full-fledged framework used for recruiting, to assess performance, career evolution, or to train in certain areas.

And it does make a lot of sense to change the culture by updating how people behave, communicate, work, act in the company so that  the organisation becomes fitter in new markets. They even have a fancy name: leadership competencies model or LCM.

The key problem is that this path of culture change is only addressing the top of the culture iceberg. Even with good communication and sense it only impacts said behaviour without addressing its drivers, as if people were robots, and they just needed a little software update to change how they function so that they are more useful to the company.

“I’m not saying pre-defined corporate LCMs weren’t useful, just that they are no longer the right way to go for many organisations… A single centralised LCM can’t meet the needs of a multispeed business environment” Valerie SCHOENFELDER

Furthermore, when these frameworks could be useful in a pure HR way, they are often way too complex for teams to really implement. Can you list 70 or 90 competencies or behaviours that your team should develop for better effectiveness? No? Me neither. But once written they also become a rigid standard reference for everything, forgetting that the market changes that triggered their design are still on-going. And don’t even start me on the one-size fits all mentality that will reduce down all kind of diversity in the same corporate matrix. 

“Every day, employees follow processes and rules that were designed for a time when the world worked differently.” Gapinvoid

A blatent example of everything that is wrong with rigidity in norms dictating behaviours is demonstrated with the recent United Airlines fiasco.

Norms can be reassuring, they are a fair reference tool for sharing good practices. But unfortunately like for United, often they tend to replace our own judgment and common sense and lead to decisions that are not taking a wider picture into account or other conflicting values.

So while behaviour change is key in supporting the materialisation of the company culture evolution so that it can survive and thrive in evolving markets, the focus of culture change cannot be delivered through just a leadership model.

“We will be the Uber of our sector” – the vision focus

The path of establishing focus through a common corporate vision has been used for decades.

Since it gives employees the destination, the inspiration for the journey ahead, it removes most of the issues we addressed with a strict behavioural approach. As such, many of the company storytelling use the hero’s journey as it touches on our sense of achievement to have overcome challenges, a sense of pride, of individual and collective success. It gives motivation for action.

A strong and inspiring vision is indeed a great drive for culture change, it allows for alignment of goals and actions at all level of the company. A vision focus may not address all the behaviours needed in the culture change but it does give a good compass for decision making. Indeed if the vision is “put a man on the moon” (NASA back in the days) then employees have very clear focus on what they want to achieve and engagement towards the dream. If the vision if “a grand cru coffee in a few seconds” (guess who that is), then employees can make many operational decisions (from where we source the coffee, to which partners to work with for the machines) more easily by checking “is this decision contributing to enabling the vision?”.  

This is why all organisations have a mission statement which they use for internal strategic alignment, but also for branding purposes.

And this is where lies the usual problem with this approach: more than often, the vision is just an external communication tool. Talk to employees about it and they are clueless, doubtful or plain sarcastic. Saying they find it hard to see the connection between what they do every day at work and where the company wants to go is quite the understatement.

Try to bridge that with leading people in a company-wide cultural change and prepare for a rude awakening.

Also, the vision of the company can often be so vague and unopposable that no-one can really feel inspired by it or recognize themselves specifically in it. For example, the vision of United is “being the airline customers want to fly, the airline employees want to work for and the airline shareholders want to invest in”. This could apply to any airline company, and change it a bit it would apply to any business “being the company customers want to buy from, the organisation employees want to work for and the business shareholders want to invest in.” All we hear in this statement is: “please love us”, which doesn’t say anything about where we want to go so it’s missing the whole point to be a vector of culture change.

So while having a vision focus can give direction and drive for the company culture evolution, the focus of culture change cannot be solely that.

“We are innovative, friendly and efficient” – the values focus

To circumvent all these missteps, you could opt to focus on the values of the company as a much deeper path.

This will touch employees emotionally and give them a sense of belonging to a community, to a meaningful collective. It will give a sense of “we” as a company, a meaningful “this is who we are, what we want, where we go”  which then can be used as branding a “public persona”.

While on this path the organisation as a group is sharing some common values. The identification of these may be done in several creative or directive ways: from post-its to voting, from working with a consultant to a one-sided decision from directors. We could debate for hours about what is the best way, this is not my point here.

The key criterion is: “is it true?” That is a big question. When I say true I mean does it ring true throughout the company? Does it really say something about us? Do we recognize ourselves in these values?

Now because it is also used for branding, the values identified may not feel right for employees, they are just a nice way to show ourselves to our market with good makeup and hairstyle; controlled speech and commercial smile. As for the vision and mission statement, values may just end up being a communication exercise to build the brand and communicate with the markets. So it becomes a farce and defuses any chance of being catalyst for cohesion in culture change.

I got this from Nespresso’s website and reading it, apart from the name of the company it could have been just any other company. But I’m not judging Nespresso’s values here, the key point is: do Nespresso employees live and breathe these values? Do they know them by heart? Does it transpire in their everyday job? For some part probably. But look at the number of values and add to that the “cultural drivers” (which are just additional values), and then the descriptions.

Nespresso’s company values

It all looks too much like a communication exercise for the outside world: all we read is “we are nice people”. What would be more interesting would be the employee’s stories as they live and breathe these values. It would give them more truth and credibility. 

Often top managers will organise a workshop to define the values then communicate them throughout the company (with nice slides graphics etc.) but then past the announcement, the content is fast forgotten.

Why? Because values are deep and sometimes a bit abstract, they need to be given meaning in the context of work so they can be “lived and breathed”. They need to be used in tools, reminded in goals, used for assessing options, again and again and again.

So while the values are the soul and heart of the company culture and are as such the fundamentals to identify and focus on for culture transformation, they need to have depth and meaning to really be powerful drivers.

Toward a full stack approach

In a following article, I will discuss a new approach to culture evolution which will take into account the 3 aspects of culture we explored here (values, vision, and behaviours) but not as three separate paths but as stackable elements of a coherent whole. To these three key elements of culture, we will also see how nature, or the company’s DNA, come into play in this culture transformation. Stay tuned.

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.