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Back in the 1980s, Edgar Schein, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, became the father of organisational culture, when he developed a model that highlighted three main components of culture.

In what is sometimes referred to as an ‘iceberg model’ as only some components are ‘above the surface’, he divided culture into ‘artifacts’, ‘espoused values’ and ‘shared basic assumptions’.  He highlighted how the shared basic assumptions shape values and how values shape the practices and workplace behaviours that are visible within the organisation.

Artifacts, he said, are highly visible and can range from the décor to the staff uniforms, the language used in the workplace and office furniture.  Espoused values are the declared values of the organisation, perhaps included in a mission statement or brand values document and even incorporated into advertising strap lines.

When it comes to shared basic assumptions, a little archaeology is required, as these are well and truly embedded in a sub-layer of everyday organisational ‘happenings’ and often revolve around intrinsic feelings about how things should be, what matters, where and how people should be working and for what purpose.  Understanding what is going on at this level is, however, absolutely key and it should never be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

In HBR’s ‘The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture’ (2018), it was said that, “Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them.  Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.”   This very much echoes the view of management theory guru, Peter Drucker, who famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The HBR article also says that, “culture is an elusive lever, because much of it is anchored in unspoken behaviours, mindsets and social patterns.”  Culture and leadership are, however, inextricably linked, so any good leader needs to understand the pervading culture.

As the experts say, “the best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required and can deftly influence the process.”

Meanwhile, McKinsey has highlighted that culture, “enables a competitive advantage to sustain and grow over time.”

What many leaders forget is that culture is a living thing, continually evolving.  It cannot simply be analysed, determined and left.  It is fundamentally based on views and opinions, which shift constantly.  They are influenced by social norms, changes in society, societal issues such as racial discrimination and sexism and the macro-environment’s impacts, the most recent example being Covid-19.  Couple that with the sudden shift to hybrid working and many company cultures will have changed out of all recognition in the past few years.

Unfortunately, many leaders have never dug into the unseen depths of company culture at all.  Many find it too confusing and so ignore it.  Some believe buying a darts board, or arranging a yoga class at lunchtimes, will create a strong culture.  Others allow HR to ‘deal’ with it.  Their organisations could be ticking ‘time bombs’ filled with employee frustrations and self-destruct mechanisms.

Cultural change is a nettle that must be grasped, or a major battle between strategy and culture rages.  Leaders must courageously tackle this area, even if it is out of their comfort zone.  Developing the ability to listen and acknowledge the employee ‘voice’ is vital to corporate health and areas such as recruitment and retention.  At a time when the talent pool has shrunk, understanding and mastering cultural change will pay dividends, aligning the company with employees visions and values and creating the energy to drive the strategy on.

As an article in Forbes has pointed out, “A well-defined and positive corporate culture is the glue that binds an organisation and its employees.” It should never be something employees are expected to adapt to, but something that they shape.  That means listening to their concerns, opinions and expectations.  It means interpreting the ‘stories’ that pervade any organisation and determining their root and how they have been created, co-created or updated over time.  It means involving employees and determining what matters in the here and now and which parts of the culture no longer serve their or the business’s purpose.

Sometimes it can be hard to ‘let go’ of elements of culture, as they appear to be company ‘heritage’ and ‘how we do things’.  The thing to remember is that how we do things in our everyday lives changes year on year and company culture needs to keep up.  Employee views should be the barometer and in the wake of movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter there have been enormous shifts in political and social awareness.

On that note, here’s an idea for you.  Changing corporate culture means listening to how your employees articulate their world and how they sum up their views.  Why not ask them to create their own hashtags, focused solely on how they see things at work and what matters to them within their working life.  Collate the hashtags, analyse them and match those thoughts against the culture that currently pervades.  You may find you need to start your own movement and that movement is one of instigating #CulturalChange.  Whenever you are ready to embark on that journey, we are here to help.