Much has been said lately about culture and the impact it can have upon organisational performance. In the first part of a two-part article, Carolyn Taylor looks at how culture change works and details HR ’ s role in the process
Recent high profile corporate disasters have moved culture to centre stage as an executive priority, risk management issue for the board and an opportunity for real performance differentiation. Culture was named as a primary cause of National Australia Bank’s troubles last year by the APRA and PwC reports on the fiasco; for Enron’s self serving arrogance; and for pushing Shell executives into overstating oil reserves. Culture accounts for Virgin’s quirkiness, Apple’s innovative spirit and Flight Centre’s frontline passion.
It remains one of the last untapped management disciplines, with most organisations spending more to update computer systems than they ever would on figuring out how to align employees’ behaviour to their strategy. Once harnessed to competitive advantage, the power of culture makes it hard for others to catch up, at least in the short term.
HR professionals can help and sometimes initiate the culture change process; they can, however, also be left behind in its wake. Many organisations today are undertaking some form of culture work, so it is important that HR professionals stay ahead of latest thinking on what culture is, how it can be driven and, importantly, what HR’s role in the process can be.
How culture works
Culture is best described as ‘how we do things around here’– it is created from the messages that are received about how people are expected to behave. Cultures develop in any community of people who spend time together and who are bound together through shared goals, beliefs, routines, needs or values. Cultures exist in nations, in corporations, in sporting clubs, in schools, in families, in religious communities, in professions and in social groups.
We humans are basically tribal animals, who are hardwired to fit in with our tribe. We read the signals about what it takes to fit in, and we adapt our behaviour accordingly. This is a survival strategy. If we absolutely cannot do this, we either leave the tribe, or the tribe ejects us. As we adapt to fit in with our new tribe, we in turn reinforce these tribal norms or accepted behaviours and thus reinforce the culture.
The process is reinforced through peer pressure. Existing tribe members, concerned about the threat to the tribe a newcomer represents, work together to ensure that the new member does not rock the boat and thus expose weaknesses in individual members.
So, to change a culture, you have to change the messages people receive about what is valued. Once people really experience new values emerging, most will adjust their behaviour accordingly. Culture management is message management. Most of these messages are non-verbal – the ‘walk’ rather than the ‘talk’– and are received from three sources: behaviours, symbols and systems.
Of the three, behaviour is the most powerful. A small but significant change in a leader’s behaviour (starting to listen and ask questions instead of telling, for example) will send the message over time that others’ opinions are valued and that this culture values openness. Symbols, such as changing how time is allocated in meetings, are also powerful.
The role of HR
Because culture is about people, a knee-jerk reaction could lead to culture change being put in HR’s basket of responsibilities. As such, one of the first education tasks of such change is to show that culture is created by how your business is run, by every decision made, how priorities are assigned, how a person is promoted and how meetings are conducted. Culture is not a stream of work that happens off to the side of the business. It is what happens when you are not concentrating on culture, but running day-to-day business affairs. The ‘walk’...