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When Leaders Say, “We Need to Change the Culture Here!”

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Leoron press service

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March 9, 2020 March 9, 2020

All too often, when leaders talk about culture at their organization, they solely concentrate on what’s wrong with it. But, if you ask how things are going, are you on plan, or is the new strategy working, the response is “fine” or “okay.” However, after a short reflection, they always reply with the added qualifier: “except we could do so much better if we had a different culture” or “things could be so much better if we had a high performance culture here.” It’s a frequent complaint from HR managers: “Our employees need to be much more engaged.”

Many HR leaders, assuming there’s sufficient appetite for change, would begin to go down the familiar solution road, and eventually arrive at a series of responses that seem logical, well-reasoned, and easily implemented:  “Perhaps, our compensation program is not rewarding high-performance behavior?” “Maybe we are paying for efforts and not results?”  “Could it be that our performance management system and process needs to be changed?” “You know, it has been a number of years since we re-designed the performance appraisal form?  Maybe it’s time!”

Cultural fixes always seem to start with HR-related programs, rather than the deeper, more important fundamental levers of organizational life:  how does the company’s strategy, leadership, and overall capabilities create a culture that either provides meaning and direction to employees or leaves them numbed and dumbfounded.  After all, when was the last time a new performance appraisal form changed long-term behavior – much less the culture? 

When executives believe their strategy is well-developed and sound, and that the leadership they are providing is effective, the search for how things can be better moves quickly elsewhere.  Maybe it’s front-line supervisors?  Maybe it’s the kinds of employees that HR is hiring?  However, again, when were front-line managers solely able to lead in a vacuum, or change the overall culture?

As trusted advisors and partners in leadership, HR’s role is to secure and present an assessment of leadership effectiveness (including in HR). Many of us, via 360° assessments have done this.  We also have the capability to provide feedback on the strategy, especially whether the leadership demonstrated and strategy articulated is aligned and working with our desired culture, or strikingly dissonant. We have the expertise and tools to measure whether synergy is being produced, or shout the warning that the place is spinning out of orbit.  We have been measuring “culture” for decades.  We could become much better at linking it to leadership and strategy.

We used to believe that it was all about how to raise employee satisfaction. Then, we worried about employee engagement. Perhaps, it’s more about working for a company where there is a clear understanding of the strategy, including the how and why – a place where respectful (and respected), ethical, and humble leadership and stewardship thrive, an organization that actually provides employees an opportunity to understand and embrace the strategy.  A “culture” of preference is achieved when both leaders and employees have a direct line of sight into their contribution to achieving the strategy, and to “being part of” and “living in” a healthy culture. This will help create an environment that provides meaning and purpose at work.  That’s the agenda for those responsible for leadership and organizational effectiveness.

An organization’s strategy and brand of leadership starts with the top leadership team.  Strategy and leadership, along with the “culture” (both current and aspirational), begins at the executive level and either cascades downward or suffers a quick destructive half-life. The company’s overall resourcing decisions, including the talent and core competencies required to achieve the strategy, are also decided at the top. When serious problems arise and leaders search for causes beyond their own office suites, those of us in the human capital profession have an opportunity, in fact a responsibility, to challenge this thinking and provide an evidence-based, thought-provoking, independent, yet informed, counter. Solutions aren’t such, if cause is inaccurate, incomplete, or worse, misunderstood. 

Our responsibility is to challenge the rush to judgment and solutions.  Instead, we can deliver business case examples, including current and recent history, along with applicable and accessible “findings” about organizational life, leading to an engaged discussion. That is our value. Our responsibility is to foster introspection on the part of our leaders and to assist them in a reflective analysis of their own history with success and failure at the top, including the critical differentiators. We must risk giving them feedback on the role that their own leadership played in these outcomes.

Perhaps the most important contribution we can make to our organizations is to increase the level of understanding leaders have of both their unique and sole responsibility, and the opportunity that comes with top leadership roles.  We can passionately, yet objectively, communicate the business case that will not only influence action, but the right actions. Without this, much at stake will be lost, including our own relevance.  

The responsibility that top leadership plays on every important decision (from what gets resourced to how to organize, to who gets hired, to whether and why we should “change the culture”) create the thread count that either successfully aligns and integrates strategy, leadership, and organizational capability to produce the desired culture (output) and business results, or leads to a slow and painful demise (and eventual change in leadership).  

Originally published on 11 Jul. 2012 | on conferenceboard.org

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