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Culture Change - 26 April 2016

Things aren’t looking good for culture change initiatives.  A study last year by Cardiff University deemed such efforts “frequently unsuccessful” because the solutions that many leaders implement are “often naïve”.  It’s a harsh assessment.  Harsh but apparently true.  

That’s because it can be near impossible to change an organisation’s culture – especially in large organisations.  Culture is an enormously complicated beast with many dimensions and years of ingrained baggage.  To turn that around is a slow and herculean task, which is why a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology makes a simple conclusion: “It is easier to change one’s leadership behaviour than to change an organisation’s culture.”

The team of scholars from a number of institutions, including the University of South Australia, analysed hundreds of leaders from 120 organisations.  What they discovered was that the performance of organisations was highest when the leader’s behaviour was different to that of the culture.  In other words, when a leader’s actions contradict the cultural norms of the organisation, that’s when the organisation performs most strongly.

Therefore, rather than trying to shift an organisation’s culture towards a set of idealistic values, it’s more effective (and efficient) to instead determine precisely what your current culture is lacking.  Then, as the leader, demonstrate and deliver those missing elements.  In essence, you’re filling the gaps rather than changing the culture.  This means that:

  • If your culture is uncommunicative, communicate a lot.
  • If your culture is not collaborative, enforce collaboration.
  • If your culture is not process-orientated, implement processes.
  • If your culture is uncompetitive, establish competitions.
  • If your culture is risk averse, take big risks.
  • If your culture is goal deficient, set ambitious goals.
And so on.  It really is a shift in mindset.  It’s exhausting and oftentimes futile to view organisational culture as something to change.  When you instead view it as the character of an organisation with gaps that need to be filled, well, all of a sudden it becomes a much more manageable and achievable endeavour.


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