3 keys to changing an organization’s culture

Adjusting the way your organization’s employees think and operate isn’t easy, but this advice can help you eliminate some of the biggest potential roadblocks.

Culture is an essential yet elusive element of a productive workforce.

Culture influences everything—how an organization recovers from failures, thrives in times of success, and identifies and solves business problems. It’s a guiding force for employee behavior and shaping mindsets, attitude and effort.

Deliotte recently reported that culture and engagement are the most important issues that organizations face.

Because culture is intangible, Deloitte also noted that 87 percent of organizations view culture and engagement among their top challenges.

These challenges have financially damaging effects. A study that SAP recently completed with Oxford Economics shows that not prioritizing workforce issues (including culture) directly correlates with lower financial performance.

Who spearheads change?

How do you change an intangible thing, and who leads the charge?

You change a culture when you make a conscious effort to align strategy with behavior. All too often, top leaders tout cultural change but fail to adjust their daily actions, discussions, incentives and openness to new ideas. When the pressure builds, they revert to “command and control” behaviors that may have served them well previously but take cultural change back to square one.

Too often the executive team lacks buy-in from those who regularly interact with employees. The cultural change dies where it matters most—with first- and second-level leaders.

Here is how lower-level leaders must drive cultural change, and how you can empower them to lead a broader transformation:

1. Build something exclusive together.

Cultural aspirations that make sense for one organization may not make sense for another. The key is to understand what you want to be known for to drive probable success, and then design backward.

If you are creating a safety-focused culture, for example, its principles should reflect and establish trust, empowerment, continuous improvement and positive celebration to drive the desired behaviors.

Afford your people time and space to design, test, fail and experiment. Reward and foster an entrepreneurial spirit. This involves engaging all levels of leadership to determine the types of messages that resonate with employees.

2. Inspire broad belief.

If all levels of leadership have an opportunity to shape the culture’s direction, there’s a greater chance they’ll believe in the culture.

Employees ask the person they trust (often their managers), “Do you believe in this?” The managers’ belief in the change is crucial to the new culture’s success.

What managers say (and don’t say) will dictate whether the change influences employees.

3. Communicate the reason.

Cultural changes often fail because employees and managers feel it’s unrewarded, unrealistic or unnecessary. This happens when organizational communication breaks down.

Leaders are often good at explaining the “what” and “how,” but they can completely miss the “why.” Without the “why,” employees must determine the purpose of the change themselves. Communicating why a change matters ultimately builds advocates among lower-level leaders.

However, communication is useless without commitment. To show what commitment looks like, executives should chart the path for change with clear markers of success, which they’ll loudly celebrate. Leaders must enforce these benchmarks with the same diligence they would any other business metrics.

Download this free white paper to discover smart ways to measure your internal communications and link your efforts to business goals.

Through these cultural milestones, managers can become familiar with how the new culture feels, looks and sounds. Clearly identifying and communicating cultural metrics gives managers space and support to reconfigure their teams and deliver differently in the spirit of achieving cultural milestones.

SAP’s motto is “Run Simple”—signifying an attempt to simplify business processes for greater agility and, ultimately, greater results. Because SAP publicly emphasizes simplicity, employees want to know what it means for the company’s strategy, products, processes and organization, as well. They also want know what Run Simple acts and feels like, so SAP created “How We Run,” a new way to talk about culture at SAP.

Cultural pillars

The campaign was created by employees using feedback and ideas from employees around the world. By involving a large pool of managers in the culture’s design, SAP arrived at the following cultural pillars:

  • Tell it like it is.
  • Stay curious.
  • Embrace difference.
  • Keep the promise.
  • Build bridges, not silos.

The hope is that because so many people were involved in the culture’s initial design, all SAP employees can understand and adopt its principles.

People don’t fear change. They fear uncertainty, loss of control and an inability to adapt.

Cultivate an organizational environment that supports change by aligning change with business objectives, driving communication strategies, assessing employee impact and creating programs to involve employees in the process.

David Swanson is executive vice president of human resources for SAP. A version of this article originally appeared on TLNT.

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