Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Don't Change Your Culture, Celebrate It!

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.


  1. Good thoughts, David.
    This also explains when companies outsource some of their operations, they can outsource work, roles, people, etc. ... but cannot outsource the culture.
    Many a times, this is the reason that such outsourcing work causes a lot of customer dissatisfaction

    1. I fully agree. I always find it baffling when firms 'outsource' their one competitive advantage, anything to do with the selection or management of their talent. A third party out sourcing firm will not understand your culture and when they do your hiring they have a different motivation and different measurements of success. When you outsource your customer service you loose your control over the culture of the service employees. Especially when the company is doing service for other companies as well.

      You can outsource those activities which are about process that, for the most part, are handled on-line and impact internally, but when you go to outsourcing selection or customer service or other such aspects, you loose part of who you are as a firm.

  2. Hi David. I also agree with you. We do see some occasions where the culture needs to be changed - think of the Toronto Maple Leafs and their former culture of entitlement but for the most part the culture of an organization evolves slowly without losing the aspects that contributed to its success and longevity. A new leader who wants to enforce instant change probably is more motivated by ego than the health of the organization.

    1. As a season ticket holder for the Raptors I tread lightly in the reply.

      I can only observe the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from the outside. So making an observation of the actual culture of the Leafs would be only speculation.

      Given the long and storied history of the Leafs I would say that their culture will trump one person coming in to change it. An example is in my book "Inside the Box" where I speak of the culture of the New York Yankees and why some players, while all stars, were not successful with the Bronx Bombers. I would say the same is true for the Leafs. That the coach might be an excellent persons and while a player might be excellent at the game from a skills perspective it takes a certain 'personality' to actually fit and be successful on the Leafs.

      I do agree that when a leader comes in with instant demand for change it is driven more by their ego then by understanding the value of working from within the culture.

  3. Well written. In life making a change has to start with what is. Before a change can take place, there a need to accept what is. When it comes to culture change, a good plan that fit reality, dedication and resources are needed to make any change effective.


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