As the Romans do

4 09 2011

What the Romans did. A 79AD mural inside a farmhouse at Pompeii

I find organisational culture fascinating. I have done two Masters degrees, both with mini-theses on this topic, and continue to be fascinated.

So, to ensure we are all on the same page, I am talking about the culture that develops in an organisation, particularly with a stable workforce. It is the sum of the intangibles, the way people deal with each other, the way different layers of the organisation deal with each other, as well as the myths and stories that grow up and seemingly, self-perpetuate. New people into the mix become acculturated either consciously (through orientation etc) or subconsciously (Stockholm Syndrome!) Hence the title.

If you want some of the basic texts, have a look for Edgar Schein and Smircich. They explain it pretty well.

So of course cultures can be good or bad. They can work for the organisation or against the organisation. They can be healthy for people to work in, or unhealthy.

But because they are self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing they tend to be change-resistant.

So how to change a culture? No guarantees, but here are my thoughts:

1. Create the burning platform. We need a strong story that explains to everyone why change is not only necessary, but imperative for survival.

2. Leadership MUST be on board. They need to lead, manage and reinforce the changes, but in a coaching motivating way which encourages the employees to take control of the implementation themselves. Culture is SHARED, so the changes need to be shared as well.

3. Communicate it well at all stages of the process and keeping in mind the issues faced by all groups of workers. Each group need to feel they will not be disadvantaged. Ensure that the message is consistent (saying one thing to management and another to workers will be found out).

4. Don’t make what has gone before “wrong”. The people you are working with are part of that past and they want to be proud of the past. What happened in the past happened for a reason. It was probably the right decision at the time, but the times are changing and we need to change as well. Making people “wrong” will build resistance.

5. Work with managers and employees to develop the new structures and rules. This gives people the opportunity of feeling ownership in the result and also begins to break down the barriers. Again – the changes need to be SHARED.

6. Implement the new structures and remove the old ones at the same time. The old structures – team meetings, hierarchies, reports – all support the old culture. You don’t want them competing because people will side with the old out of habit and familiarity.

7. Sometimes minor things can make a difference – painting a wall a different colour, rearranging the furniture or putting a new smelling air freshener in. Anything that subconsciously says “it’s different now”. Welcome to the new world!

8. Recognise that it will take time and that people will try to slip back. There needs to be constant reinforcement of the new ways. New processes and ways of working can help reinforce the change.

The key of course is the will to change. If no-one wants to change and you are unable to convince them of the need for change, then it isn’t going to work. You can’t do it by yourself.

And remember, no matter how dysfunctional a culture, there are people benefitting from it, either directly, or because they are comfortable with it and fear change more than they are dissatisfied with their current culture.

Pick your battles.