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2023 should be a year of cultural change for many organisations. The reality is that it won’t be. Many companies will not see the necessity of undergoing this process, or understand how to engineer it.

To appreciate the need for change, a business must be in touch with its culture. For Schein (2000) and Schneider (2000)[i], culture is an evolved context embedded in a company’s systems, with strong roots in history.  It is something resistant to manipulation and the property of the collective, based on symbolic meanings, core values, beliefs, underlying ideologies and assumptions about the business.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has said “culture is the fabric of work relations, dictating the rules for social interaction and governing the dynamics of teamwork and collaboration.”  It’s about ‘how we do things here’.[ii]

Therein lies the issue.  How we do things has changed enormously thanks to the pandemic, societal change, shifting attitudes towards work and pressures on supply chains.  A Berkeley-Stanford Silver Lining study[iii] has identified aspects of working life that have increased in importance since the pandemic – flexibility, transparency, supportiveness, decisiveness and confronting conflict.   De-emphasised aspects are: customer orientation; detail orientation; individualism; results orientation and collaboration.   A high-performance orientation has given way to one based around empathy, understanding and mutual support.

Whilst we welcome the greater openness to empathy and mutual support, some of these findings make us personally flinch, as for any business to be sustainable, it needs to be performing well.  This typically requires ongoing attention to people, customers and results.

People as the drivers of corporate culture change

People must be the focus of company culture, for some cultural aspects of office life, suppressed by the pandemic, such as balanced feedback and performance reviews, will need to be revitalised.  It is also imperative that company culture proactively addresses employee mental health and wellbeing.

It is clear siloed and hierarchical cultures will not function well in the future, particularly as a lack of hierarchy is the preference of Gen-Z workers (born 1997-2012), who seek open communication.  Honest and transparent leadership is high on workers’ agendas and there is a need to re-boost collaboration within working-from-home and hybrid working regimes.  Candidates with soft skills, adaptability and critical thinking capacities are those dovetailing with the new-look requirements of a corporate entity.

These elements of future-readiness and resilience are, however, often overlaid on a sub-strata of culture resistant to their absorption.  Company culture needs to be monitored and  adjusted. Employers must have a genuine desire to learn about their people, values, beliefs and behaviours, to better align company culture with their employees.  Workers want more authenticity within work roles; to work for companies in tune with their values.

Changing corporate culture or climate?

Changing a culture is hard and requires ongoing commitment to the task. The CIPD also believes culture is often too intangible to fathom and that the better option is to focus on culture ‘climate’ – the meaning and behaviour employees attach to policies, practises and procedures.  This centres on feelings and perceptions of the workplace.  

This cultural climate can then be sub-divided into safety, innovation, learning, ethical and inclusion climates.  In the safety climate, you can assess whether or not employees perceive company policies and practices contribute to workplace safety.  In the learning climate, do they feel mistakes are treated as learning experiences or as reasons to wield punishments?

Tapping into company culture through this lens can be productive, helping to identify the new behaviours required to suit strategy and reframe existing workplace narratives.  Tackling underlying beliefs is hugely important.

Here, Deloitte cites a useful example.  If the belief is that perfectionism is the organisation’s guiding principle, it will lead to behaviours focused around indecision, such as endlessly reviewing proposals.  This then leads to delays in getting products or services to market.  The culture of perfectionism needs to be relinquished.

For us at Space2BE, culture is mostly about values and permissions and how these are ‘lived’ through leadership role-modelling and company-wide behaviours.

It is vital to appreciate that cultural change cannot be imposed from above and many attempts to change a culture fail.  Involvement of the ‘system’ is key, however, and it does have to be led from the front, by leaders displaying the behaviours they want others to adopt and embracing new cultural norms.

Remember there will be positive elements of the prevailing culture that are positive.  As Jon Katzenbach, author of The Critical Few, says: “No culture is all good or all bad.  Every culture has emotional energy within it that can be leveraged.”[iv]  The key lies in assessing what needs to change, given new contexts, to achieve the holy grail of aligning culture, strategy and operations.

How to engineer cultural change in your organisation

Cultural change involves focusing on leadership styles, the dynamics of teams and their levels of psychological safety, organisation and job design, role clarity, attitudes to learning, and the policies and rules governing the workplace.  It will need you to ask questions such as ‘what is the tone of voice of my organisation?’, ‘what would we look like as an avatar?’ and ‘what does it mean to be part of this company?’  It means listening to conversations, forums and feedback, finding the workforce’s natural ‘leaders’ and opinion shapers, to hear their views and then move towards dialogue, as you take what you learn from their descriptions and together help reshape the culture.

You do not have to do this alone.  Our Space2BE team is highly experienced in helping organisations tackle cultural change and can cast the spotlight on the behaviours and beliefs that are the building blocks of the prevailing culture.  We can also  deliver the agile leadership skills you require, to shift perceptions and garner more employee engagement.

No organisation can ignore the requirement to review its culture in the post-pandemic world and very different world.  If you need help with this, contact us on 0208 720 6991.

[i],%20Kinicki,%20&%20Muhammad%20(2012).pdf (Organizational Culture and Climate CHERI OSTROFF, ANGELO J. KINICKI, AND RABIAH S. MUHAMMAD)