• Demystifying The Sticky Business Of Culture Shift…

    In 2012, the Corporate Executive Board’s annual list of top 10 risks CEOs and Executives are most concerned with ranked “Corporate Culture” as #4.

    In the past few years, I have been involved with two significant culture shifts; one with a 5,000-person hospital and the other a 900-person Crown Corporation. My role, as an external consultant, was to work collaboratively with them to shift their cultures to be more strategically positioned and better aligned with their corporate vision and espoused values.

    A great place to start when focusing on culture shift is to identify the organization’s current and desired culture to determine employees’ perceptions, which indicate alignment (or not) between the two.

    What are the elements that comprise an organization’s culture?

    Organizational Culture Defined

    … taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations and definitions that characterize organizations and their members. It also includes unobservable elements such as implicit assumptions, conscious contracts & norms and observable elements (i.e., artifacts & explicit behaviours).

    • Cameron & Quinn, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture.

    In other words, culture is what we see and don’t visibly see (but it’s there). When we are new to a culture, it is easier to identify its particular elements than when we are entrenched in it. If you want to know about a company’s culture, ask a recent hire. They easily notice the behaviours, norms, and assumptions while trying to make sense of the organization and its people in order to ‘fit in’.

    Values are Important to your Culture

    Values are the cornerstone of culture. Values are defined as our beliefs and the behaviours predicated on these beliefs. Beliefs influence our behaviours and our behaviours influence the culture. According to Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, a company that prides itself on its culture, endorses the benefits of core values:

    Your personal core values define who you are, and a company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand. For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.

    • Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO

    The following model (Mark Fulton), depicts the relationship between values, culture, and the experience of our employees and our customers.


    Alignment is important within your culture

    A gap between what an organization espouses as its culture (transparent, team oriented, innovative) and what is tacit (the unseen what’s really going on) can be at the heart of cultural dissonance. For instance, do we say we value innovation, but have a low tolerance for risk? Or that we value trustworthiness, but do not take immediate action around workplace bullying? Addressing these incongruences by surfacing the tacit norms, beliefs, and assumptions is the foundation of lasting change.

    If you are curious about what you can do to positively influence your organization’s culture and minimize risks to employee and customer engagement, consider the following strategies:

    1. Identify your employees’ personal and organizational values to determine alignment
    Discovering employees’ personal values and their perceptions of the organization’s current values and desired values provides you with data about the organization’s values alignment (or misalignment).

    Barrett Values Center offers a comprehensive survey to determine your organization’s top 10 personal, current, and desired values, and presents the alignment (or misalignment) and your organization’s health index.

    This baseline can set the direction for an organizational action plan to positively influence cultural alignment and ultimately improve employee engagement and your customers’ experience.

    2. Encourage engagement
    Richard Axelrod’s principle of engagement is to seek every opportunity to ‘widen-the-circle’ of involvement and engage employees in dialogue. Employees are the source of innovative ideas to contribute to workplace improvements. By wholly engaging them, you create opportunities for them to:

    • Step up as informal leaders
    • Be empowered
    • Take calculated risks
    • Be accountable
    • Contribute to the organization’s strategic goals
    • Think more as an ‘owner’ who can influence positive change


    3. Harness strengths
    Management Research in Appreciative Inquiry (David Cooperider) has shown the more we focus on what’s working well in organizations, as opposed to what’s not, the greater the return on effort. By focusing on harnessing strengths, there is a higher likelihood that staff will be engaged and want to be involved. It also helps people connect to the corporate ‘spirit’ from a perspective of what’s possible and get enrolled into your corporate ‘dream’.

    4. Have a clear and strong vision
    A clearly defined, inspiring organizational vision provides staff and stakeholders something tangible to rally around. This vision should draw people towards a strong purpose (why does the organization exist?) and compel your staff to connect from their own sense of purpose and value system.

    5. Leaders walking-the-talk
    It is important to define each desired value not only in terms of what it means, but what it looks like in action (behaviors). These definitions and descriptions become your organization’s norms for what you stand for and what you all expect of each other if truly living those values. Modelling the behaviours must start with and be consistent from the top. Employees look to leadership for cues and congruence. Behaviours not aligned with the espoused values contribute to mistrust and erodes efforts made around influencing a positive culture.

    6. Integrate culture shift into your existing initiatives (vs a stand-alone initiative)
    Best practice research (Cracking the Culture Code, Libby Sartain & Brent Daily, RoundPegg) on culture shows that when focusing on influencing a culture shift, it is better to integrate the desired culture (and values) within existing corporate initiatives. As culture is at the heart of an organization, embedding culture shift activities in to current and ongoing corporate and team initiatives better ensure sustainable improvements over stand-alone culture shift projects. Shifting the conversations in project and leadership meetings with decision-making made through the lens of your organization’s desired values creates significant opportunity for cultural transformation. This becomes, over time, new norms; the “how we do things around here”.

    7. Allow for emergence, feedback, and adaptation
    No matter which strategies you apply to shift your culture towards the desired values and desired culture state, some will have great impact, while others may not. Allow for your ideas and plans to be flexible enough in their implementation to be responsive to your organization’s feedback – and adapt accordingly.

    8. Be committed to the time it takes
    Culture transformation does not happen overnight. This is still a change even if integrated into your existing initiatives. In order to achieve sustained positive impact, culture change in any organization should ensure that adaptations are made to the following:

    • Informal and formal structures and procedures
    • Human resource processes (e.g. performance feedback, compensation, recruitment, payroll, retention, succession, onboarding, etc.)
    • KPIs and other performance indicators
    • Sales and incentive structures
    • Environmental and sustainability principles and guidelines
    • Customer satisfaction metrics
    • Leadership development programs and metrics
    • Decision-making and escalation protocols
    • Financial mechanisms
    • IT infrastructures
    • Communication mechanisms and messaging


    9. Ensure shared ownership/sponsorship
    Achieving a positive culture shift needs to be fully owned at the Executive level and the vision and espoused values messaged and modelled consistently by each Executive team member. HR may be a key contributor to influencing strategic approaches; however, the ownership must sit with the C-level team. This is critically important given that those organizational elements that need adaptation (see #8 and 9 above) fit across the board (e.g. Sales, HR, IT, Sustainability, Finance, Quality, etc.). Establishing the shared ownership up front helps to create commitment and accountability.

    10. Have fun…really
    Shifting culture in a positive direction should be something that engages and inspires people towards the organizational dream (vision, desired values, culture). If things feel too heavy or significant, step back and ask ‘how can we bring ourselves closer to the desired values and culture in a way that is inspiring and engaging?’

    Interested in reading more about culture? Check out the following resources:


    Labelled Tinkerbell and Mighty Mouse by colleagues and clients, Erica is a culture catalyst and leadership mentor. She engages teams, supports them through change and empowers them to be at their best.  Connect with Erica on Twitter, the Incrementa website, or her personal site

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