Many people agree that 1) organizational culture exists and 2) it can either be a great hindrance or an amazing competitive advantage in executing strategy. However, not everyone agrees on the definition of culture.
Here is a concise definition from HR expert Susan Heathfield, that I’d like to share with you:
“Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people. Culture is the behavior that results when a group arrives at a set of-generally unspoken and unwritten-rules for working together.”
While leaders can greatly influence culture, they can’t change the culture on demand, since it is made up of many micro-cultures and represents all of the people in an organization. In their book, Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen tell story after story where leaders failed in organizations, because they weren’t attuned to the organizational culture. Rather than working with the culture, they implemented strategies that went against the shared values, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and behaviors held by people in the organization and failed. If you’ve been in the workplace for any length of time, I’m sure you can count several examples of new leaders who had difficulty implementing new strategy precisely because those changes didn’t take the culture into account.
Coffman and Sorensen encourage leaders to: “be active owners of the cultures to which we belong to draw out the best of the cultures’ qualities and align them to our business imperatives.” In order to do this, they challenge all leaders to:
- Ignite the passion in ourselves and our people
- Connect our people to each other, our mission, and purpose
- Revitalize our cultures as a competitive advantage for our organizations
How have you leveraged the best in your organizational culture to execute strategy? And what advice can you give to other leaders who feel hindered by their organizational culture?
Last week during a leadership development program I was leading, one of the discussion topics revolved around how most people view change as loss. This is true, even if it is a very positive change. Think about that from your own experience in leading or being a part of change efforts. Have you ever heard people express concerns, like:
- “We’re already doing our best, how can we do more?”
- “What are those people thinking? They’re not on the front-line with students!”
- “If I just ignore this, it will go away.”
- “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
- “What will happen to my job?”‘
According to John Kotter, author and world-renowned expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School, the goal of communicating a vision and mission for change efforts is to “get as many people as possible acting to make the vision a reality.”
To do that, he argues that effective communication is more than just data transfer. Communicating for buy-in requires addressing people’s anxieties, accepting their anger, and appealing to their emotions on a gut level.
Here’s what Kotter suggests works to communicate change visions and strategies effectively:
- Keep communication simple and heartfelt, not complex or technocratic
- Do your homework before communicating, especially to understand what people are feeling
- Speak to anxieties, confusion, anger, and distrust
- Rid communication channels of junk so that important messages can go through
- Use technologies to help people see the vision (intranet, video, ITV, etc.) and to enhance in-person communication
In addition, to communicate for buy-in, I recommend having real dialogue with those affected. Not just an information session, with a brief Q&A, but a real live discussion, where people can get their concerns, anxieties, and fears out on the table and work toward common goals. It may seem scary at first to engage in a dialogue like this, but it is the fastest route for building buy-in in any change effort.
What Kotter says doesn’t work is:
- Undercommunicating (which happens all the time)
- Speaking as though you are only transferring information
- Accidentally fostering cynicism by not walking the talk
In your experience, what has worked best to communicate for buy-in and engage people in making the vision a reality?