When you feel great, you believe you can do anything. When you feel bad all you want to do is curl up in a ball and hope the bad feeling goes away.
Culture is no different. When it is with you, agrees with your mindset, you, and your group can and will achieve great feats. When it is against you, it’s like trying to wade through waist-deep treacle.
Organisations fool themselves into believing that they want to be transformative, innovative and adaptive. They also fool themselves into believing that by changing the top-down message, the mandate from the executive, that innovation will flow like the ancient Saharan rivers of gold. Unfortunately, historically, corporate culture is focused on operational excellence and efficiency. This is the very antithesis of the collective hearts, minds and habits of the organisation’s people and their mutual perception of ‘this is how we do things’. Top-down mandates can only ever command compliance, they can never influence confidence, belief, enthusiasm or creativity.
Culture is feeling. Culture is the way an individual in an organisation feels about the work they do, about the organisation they work for, about the feeling they get when doing their work and the feeling they have after the work is done. Culture is innate. It is invisible. It’s like the wind. You can’t see the wind, but you can tell it is blowing when you see the trees move. The challenge is always making sure that the wind/culture is moving with the organisation and not against it.
We learn how we are feeling from the social interaction with have with individuals. If someone we love gives us hug we feel warm, secure and loved. We feel good. If we are ignored, we feel lost, lonely. Our social interplay is our barometer for our feelings and a direct influencer to our cultural perception. Society’s most significant changes have come through social movements, through emotion, through passion and the power of the crowd. The myriad of civil rights movements are testament alone to this.
The recent #metoo social movement surrounding allegations of sexual harassment by people in positions of power, particularly the Hollywood elite, has shown a clear example of how cultural change can occur through emotion, passion, strong symbolism (the #metoo hashtag) and a collective voice.
So how does an organisation take these feelings and enable cultural change?
Use emotion to stir belief and promote action. See my previous post.
As indicated above, simply mandating a need for change is not enough. People must feel a deep desire for change, even a responsibility to change, for the cultural wheel to turn. A good way to do this is constantly to ask ‘Why are we here?’ It’s a very philosophical notion but one that goes to the heart of feeling. Culture must always be more than just personal gain.
Spotlight Quick Wins
I loathe the term ‘quick wins’ but it does describe this next section aptly. To effect cultural movement we need to demonstrate efficacy. Don’t nominate the cultural changes you wish to see. When you see examples of what you hope to see, spotlight them. Showcase them. Reward behaviour. Don’t expect it.
Harness Established Networks
Identify both the formal and informal networks within your organisation and to build coalitions of culture. You may find that disparate groups have common cultural ideals that align the changes being sought. Never underestimate the power of social networks and not just the ones that occur online.
Create or Foster Cultural Havens
Just like the #metoo movement above, social network havens like these provide the opportunity for communities of support and practices around the notion of the cultural changes being sought. Religion has practised this notion for millennia. Mosques, churches, synagogues or temples have always been places for people of similar faiths (heart and mind) to congregate, share thoughts and ideals and support each other. Organisations should be no different and when combined with networks above, cultural change will develop momentum.
If history has taught us one thing, its that symbols and symbolism are vital to culture, vital to identity. Symbols create a sense of belonging, of solidarity, of who ‘we’ are. They help define boundaries and done well can embellish and enhance commitment towards goals. It is important to remember not to let symbolism to become tokenism. Just don’t hand a free T-Shirt and expect the culture to change. There must be meaning and feeling behind the gesture. You have to create the desire to wear the T-shirt or attach the button to the shirt/lanyard for the symbol to assist in effecting real cultural change.
Don’t expect these concepts to result in dramatic change overnight. There will be friction. However, expect and work with a moderate amount of friction. Believe it or not, we need conflict to affect change, affect culture. Organisations need friction/conflict to gauge that change is actually happening. Never overuse positions of authority to accelerate or ameliorate this friction. It is a necessary thing.
All of the points above focus on feeling; focus on supporting and nurturing. Foisted mandates of cultural change will never, ever work. We need to start thinking of culture as that which has a soul, has feeling. It is not a commodity that can be bought, not a number that can be increased, not a resource that can be replenished at will with either people or money. It is a priceless resource of the heart that cannot be bought.
Remember the words of Vincent Starrett, the American author, when thinking about culture and feeling, ‘only those things the heart believes are true.’ Only if you can feel it, can you change it.