One of the questions I get asked the most when working with an organization is, “How do you go about creating cultural change?” I think the reason we get asked this so frequently is because the task seems huge, outside the realm of the possible. There are a number of reasons a corporate culture needs or wants to change, but regardless of why, the process of making the change a reality is rooted in dialogue.
Human beings experience the world through language. It shapes our reality and defines our lives. The most cohesive organizations have a common language. Sometimes we call it jargon, and sometimes it is all but impossible for someone from the outside to understand, but the way the team (or company, or entire discipline) talks impacts its identity.
In the book Tribal Leadership, Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright outline five stages of organizational development which are defined by the conversations that members of the organizations have. Moving an organization through the stages is a process that can be managed, but requires that individuals become conscious of and responsible for how they communicate. If you work for or with an organization that is struggling, this book is a good place to start looking for solutions.
While the book focuses on the impact that corporate culture has on productivity, what I find in my work is that corporate culture impacts and is impacted by so many aspects of an organization. We may measure our success based on productivity, but in the end that is only a measurement, as are things like job satisfaction, recruitment, and turn-over rates.
How then, do we bring out real change in an organization? Is it really as simple as managing the conversations? Yes and no.
The first thing to remember is that leaders set the tone. Not just in the formal speeches like those made at the Annual Meeting of the Board, for example, but in every interaction they have with members of the organization. All too often, leaders are focused on themselves. On their work, their goals, their team. They use “I, me, and my” statements without realizing that this often sets up competition within the organization itself. In fact, they frequently see internal competition as healthy in a Darwinian way.
The authors of Tribal Leadership contend, and my own observations support, that this is not a conversation that allows for or supports positive organizational change, and yet it is the most common conversation that happens in an organization. Instead, positive change occurs within the conversation of vision. This is where teams come together and take on industry standards as the competition, not other parts of their own company. This is not an easy shift to make, but it is essential for both personal and organizational growth. We see this in many industry-leading companies and most successful social movements. Simon Sinek may have said it best in his TED Talk, “Start With Why.”
If organizational change is something your organization is struggling with, know that there are a number of resources to help. For more information, contact your local Community Development Extension personnel. We would love to help you.
Laura Fuller is a county Extension educator in Noble County (Buckeye Hills EERA).