We have to change our culture.

“We have to change our culture.”

It’s been muttered by every frustrated leader, in every organization, in both the public and the private sectors.

300px-enron_logo.svg_But what most of them mean is, “We have to change the way we do things around here.” At its most fundamental level, this is what the term “corporate culture” means: “the way things are done around here.”

Organizational culture is the sum of everything that makes up the modern workplace. It is the stated values of the organization. And, more importantly, it is the unstated values that have never been codified—yet which every employee fully understands.

It includes the symbols of the organization. Some are obvious, like the organization’s logo or the mission and vision statements that hang so prominently in the main lobby. Others are not so obvious to the public—parking spaces, private offices when everyone else has been moved to the new “open” floorplan, and weeklong training sessions in Palm Desert.

Culture is the conversations that take place in the boardrooms, in the hallways, in the cube farm, and in the break rooms. And it is just as much the conversations that don’t take place. The jobs-well-done, the need-to-improves, and the disciplinary actions that never happen.

It is the stories that are told, the awards that are presented, the celebrations that are canceled, the myths that are perpetuated.

The Smell of Diesel

Culture is the “smell of the place,” that feeling you get when you spend any time in an organization, no matter how large or small.

volkswagen_logoCulture defines what is OK—and what isn’t. Culture defines right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, meaningful and meaningless. Volkswagen has given the world a lesson in culture, because it takes a lot of people to create and install diesel engine software that cheats environmental tests. But they pulled it off for six years—and it wasn’t an internal leak that let the story out.

Culture is…
“the smell of the place.”

Culture can be strong or it can be weak, but it always exists. And it exists because people who work together must understand “the way things are done around here.”

Changing Culture

Anyone who gives culture a thought can understand these concepts. The hard part is accepting how resilient culture is.

Because culture defines a globally accepted template for action within the organization, by its nature it exists to resist change. This is the critical point every leader must clearly understand: there is no aspect of an organization that is more difficult to change than the culture. An organization that has never prioritized things like shared leadership or cross-functional teams, and wishes to move in that direction, must realize that it is embarking on a journey. It will require time, perseverance, and committed leadership. There will be resistance, much of it passive and well hidden, and there will be failure.

But organizational culture can be changed if the leaders go into the process with an awareness of the scope of the challenge and a plan for overcoming the inevitable obstacles.


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