The psychology of workplace culture is not easy to grasp but it’s so fascinating because it can provide such incredible value.
It’s like the air around us; we all need it to survive, but the quality of the air we breathe can influence how we behave.
If the air quality is poor, it affects our performance negatively and we become slow and ineffective. If the air quality is high, we can grow and thrive.
Culture is no different because it keeps organizations healthy and it allows them to thrive, develop, and become powerful.
However, it’s not easy to improve the quality of culture because it’s not as easy as installing a ‘cultural purifier’ to keep the air in the workplace clean. Instead, companies need to set up cultural change programs to improve and/or fix what is broken.
Cultural change programs: Are they successful?
Cultural change programs are common, and we’ve all gone through them, often more than once. They are launched every four to six years, prompted by exciting new shifts in strategy.
Companies commonly approach cultural change by identifying or co-creating culture in terms of values and behaviors with the help of their staff.
Employees can share their perspectives and help create a final list of values and behaviors, which are then injected into the minds of employees around the world. This occurs through mandatory online training and workshops.
The intention behind these programs is to coach employees and achieve unity so they can all move together in the same direction.
Unity is key to win, but how successful are cultural change programs? Do they guarantee positive change?
Towers Watson and McKinsey found that they do… for only ~25% of them. 75% fail a slow and expensive death.
The human factor
Our human behaviors and values are defined by the unwritten rules we receive from our parents, brothers, sisters, and direct members of our community since childhood.
Essentially, culture is a protection mechanism that seeks belonging, safety, and survival. It allows collective responses to a crisis whenever the community is in danger.
This served us well thousands of years ago and it kept us alive in the wild. In the modern world, this behavior can be counterproductive to growth.
Changing someone’s behavior and values once they are older requires a deeply impactful emotional experience, which can be negative or positive.
Unwritten norms and values are funny because we tend to get angry or agitated when we experience a perceived breach of those norms and values without knowing exactly what it is.
At the end of the day, we can’t easily change the way we feel about cultural breaches, but we can learn to alter our behavior.
For example, we can suppress our emotions all day long, but it will only stress us out and negatively impact our happiness and wellbeing.
And that’s the pitfall of cultural change programs. These programs define and promote specific behaviors and values and people are expected to adopt them. In reality, this can create internal conflicts, as well as an immunity to change.
This brings us to a different set of questions: What if we don’t do all that? What if we don’t formally define behaviors and values? What if we allow people to be themselves instead of asking them to change in order to fit in? What if we create a culture based on embracing differences?
Instead of creating a culture with specific behaviors and values that people must force themselves to learn, we can create a culture where differences are celebrated.
Wouldn’t this be inclusion in its purest form? Imagine the energy that would flow through the workplace if employees didn’t have the need to suppress anything about themselves.
Now, you may be wondering, how can a company operate if employees don’t share the same set of values?
The answer is purpose! If we keep employees connected to the organization’s purpose from day one and we instill intrinsic motivation, employees will strive to be valuable within the organization.
Sports provides us with perfect examples. World-class winning teams are typically the ones that unify with purpose while accepting and promoting individual differences.
When Switzerland beat France in the 2020 UEFA European Championship, France was a world champion with some of the world’s best players on every single position. The only way the Swiss team could win is if they reached their full potential at the level they did.
The French team had internal conflicts and the stars wanted to shine on their own. In other words, they lacked unity and they didn’t have the same purpose.
Would it have helped them if they had implemented a set of common behaviors and values? Or would it have been better to allow the stars to be themselves and come together under the same purpose?
Five key points to consider in cultural change programs
First, you need to make sure values and behaviors are an output of a defined purpose. You need to build the purpose narrative first, preferably through collaboration with employees, and you will see the right behaviors unfold and blossom in front of your eyes. This sounds easy, but the majority of the companies still fail to explain why they exist.
Second, transformation can only happen effectively when you challenge the existence of the company today and in the future.
Purpose should be driven by the transformation officers of the company, not the marketing or HR departments. With all due respect to the great work these departments do, their core focus is not on the existence and future of the company. They do play an essential and leading role in driving the purpose and maximizing the output.
Third, a good purpose inspires employees first, customers second.
I once spoke with a CEO, running a large company in the educational industry, who proudly shared his purpose as “make a difference in everything we do”.
When I asked a few of his employees if they understood what they needed to do in their work to achieve this purpose, we found that the purpose meant totally different things for different people in the context of their business. This makes sense because googling this purpose statement will give you more than 8.5 million results back.
On the contrary, Tesla’s purpose is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Tesla believes the faster the world stops relying on fossil fuels and moves towards a zero-emission future, the better*.
And that’s why they make all-electric vehicles. Every single employee not only believes in this mission, but they also understand how to contribute. I call this activating a purpose.
Fourth, there are two kinds of organizations. Those that are open to bending their values to achieve goals, and those that stick to their values even when that means that they won’t achieve their goals.
The latter are the brave ones as they make tougher choices, but they are also more likely to develop a strong intrinsic motivation because it’s perfectly clear what the organization stands for.
Companies driven by purpose enjoy higher market share gains, they grow three times faster than competitors and boast of higher customer and employee satisfaction (Deloitte, 2019).
Whatever organization you are, it’s all good. There is no right or wrong but if you want to grow your company and build trust with your people, don’t say you are one and act as the other.
Fifth, if you define a set of values and behaviors make sure they guide your employees in their day-to-day work. The better you do this the faster people can embed the right behaviors. For example:
- Instead of ‘respect’ use ‘don’t criticize, condemn, or complain’
- Instead of ‘customer centricity’ use ’employee first, customer second’
- Instead of ‘positivity’ use ‘assume positive intent’
You get the idea. Remember that whatever you put on paper it should be a guiding principle not a hollow word that means different things to different people.
The never-ending evolution of technology and the aftermath of COVID-19 is setting off a range of changes that have catapulted us into a new unknown era.
An era with new problems to solve, exciting challenges to go after, in a geopolitical arena we have not seen before.
Think of ‘The Great Resignation‘ also known as ‘The Big Quit’, a post-COVID-19 problem that will re-define the course of almost all companies in any sector.
To grow a company, we must re-define old thinking and find new innovative ways to elevate organizations to peak performance.
In this context people are all that matter but we need to discover how to instill intrinsic motivation and continuously improve through the psychology of positive self-fulfilling prophecies.
In this new world we won’t change culture with a big bang, but through effective hacks and small but powerful changes.
Just like a buzzing air purifier, cleaning the air with a continuous act of positive ‘micro’ change.
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