3 steps for eliciting cultural change—bottom-up and top-down

Emphasize your organization’s narrative, tap your influential staffers, and, above all, promote candid discussion. Those pesky naysayers might make valid—and invaluable—arguments.

How to effect culture change

Company culture starts at the top; meaningful change requires executive buy-in.

That’s only half the story, though.

For a cultural shift to succeed, everyone must be on board, from the CEO to the greenest intern. Here are three ways to ensure they are:

1. Understand the importance of open communication.

In a healthy organization, employees should feel welcome to freely share ideas with leaders. If they’re unhappy with the way something is being done, they should not be afraid to dissent. They should be willing and able to call out colleagues—and even managers—when necessary.

When implementing a new process or initiative, explain your reasoning to everyone affected. Why are you making the change? What do you hope to achieve? How will it affect them, and how can they gain the greatest benefit from it?

Pay attention to each department’s context and needs. When someone expresses distaste for an initiative, don’t get offended or defensive. Listen to what they have to say, try to understand their perspective, and acknowledge their points.

2. Empower your standout staffers.

Communication is only the first step in changing your company’s culture. As challenging as encouraging discourse among employees and departments might seem, it’s only the first step. You need champions,  people in your corner who understand and support your mission.

Pay attention to the charismatic or especially skilled people in each department who have a great deal of influence over their peers. They’re often the veterans and teachers, and they embody your company’s values and display exceptional work and initiative.

These are the men and women who will truly drive change, who will lead by example and bring others on board. Just empower them to do so—to give staff the independence to excel.

3. Establish a cultural narrative.

To catch your employees’ attention, start with a compelling story.

What defines your organization? What core ideals and values was it established on? What has it achieved, and what does it still aim to achieve? Weave these elements into an ongoing narrative, a living story embodied by your business, in which your staff plays a central role.

“[Every organization] has a history—a unique story,” writes HBR’s John Coleman. “The ability to unearth and craft it into a narrative is a core element of culture creation. The elements of that narrative can be formal or informal… but they are more powerful when identified, shaped, and retold as part of a firm’s ongoing culture.”

You can’t impose a corporate culture, and buy-in from leaders doesn’t guarantee a successful cultural shift. To change the core of your organization, you need everyone on board.

Brad Wayland is chief strategy officer at BlueCotton. A version of this post first appeared on TLNT.

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