I see it time and again. Culture is what makes an organization unique. If you try and fight that culture, you’ll lose every time. If you embrace it, you give yourself a better chance to win.
Most recently, I was working with a large university hospital to define the unique attributes and behaviours that make their leaders successful. The hospital is over 200 years old and has a long and proud history. While talking with different employees at different levels about leadership, it became clear that the leaders who made the most meaningful contributions to the organization were those that lived and celebrated the hospital’s values. Those that failed or sputtered out just “didn’t fit” or “tried to change our culture.”
One story focused on a new leader who came from outside the organization. His first year on the job people joked that he did not speak, only listened. He certainly said very little. Instead, his personal mission was to uncover the heart and soul of the institution. He asked questions about culture and he dug up examples of how values came into play. This was how he came to understand what differentiated the institution from other medical centres. Not surprisingly, that leader was very successful in subsequent years.
All leaders should recognize that values are deeply rooted in the history of an organization. In turn, those values form the bedrock of the culture and drive the behaviours that lead to success in the organization. Leaders “speak” to employees most clearly when they align their messages and strategies to the values, culture, and behaviours that make the organization unique. Employees respond so well to these aligned approaches because people are looking for predictability, meaning, and direction in their lives. When a leader does something contrary to the culture, employees are shaken. They may go internal with their dissent and become passive about the leader’s agenda. Or they may revolt outright and become cynical and disruptive. Either way, their reaction is a sign of their confusion, anxiety, and anger.
It always baffles me, then, when leaders announce that an organization needs a culture change. What are they hoping to accomplish? They want different results, perhaps, or they want things to be done in different ways. But you cannot lead such change by dictate.
You can’t change an organization’s culture. At best, you can evolve it slowly over a long time. Better still, if you use the culture as a secure foundation, you can introduce new behaviours much more easily, and help the organization meet the challenges of new circumstances. I saw this at the hospital I mentioned at the beginning. “Healthcare is changing,” the CEO said. “We need to do things differently for that reason. But everything we are doing is still in line with who we are, and what we believe in.” That’s the kind of change people accept.
Next week, I’ll talk about how leaders can avoid confusing culture with tactics or business strategy.