Many companies languish with cultures that neither meet organisational needs nor address the core needs of individuals and teams. Although leadership teams intuitively and experientially know that culture impacts on how people behave and perform, few leaders know how to tackle cultural issues (and rectify them where necessary). According to quite a few of these leaders, culture is supposedly not really tangible. For many, culture is difficult to see, hear or touch, so best left alone. Culture, however, is always reflected in behaviour (how information is shared, how decisions are made, willingness of employees to offer discretionary effort and time, etc.), in systems (policies, processes, rewards, structures, etc.) and in mind-sets (attitudes, emotional reactions, passing comments, etc.). Where dysfunctional, culture needs to be re-designed and re-embedded to achieve optimal individual, team and organisational performance.

Destructive cultures hurt organisational effectiveness and impede collaborative team work. In these environments, the following dysfunctional behaviours/feelings are often experienced:

  • Confusion or ignorance of targets and roles
  • Conflictual relationships
  • Power struggles
  • Bureaucracy and other unnecessary control measures
  • Disempowerment and feelings of helplessness
  • Lack of accountability and finger-pointing
  • Poor or even devious communication practices
  • Defensiveness and making excuses

The transformation from destructive to constructive culture is challenging and requires a foundation with the following criteria in order to succeed:

  1. Relevance – culture change should originate from business growth, client service or sustainability ideals, or a combination of the same (in other words, aligned to desired marketplace outcomes). Culture change is not just a good idea, but rather a business imperative.
  2. Leadership example – all in leadership must “walk the talk”, modelling the new desired behaviours. New culture expectations should be included in all communications from management. Performance measures should be aligned to the intended change. “Change champions” should be elected and trained.
  3. Official endorsement – the proposed transformation should be explicit and overt. Budget, resources, time and energy should be applied to the initiative to endorse its legitimacy. Regular attention needs to be given to headline the expected change.
  4. Dialogue – trans-level conversations regarding personal change to identify the behaviours that will either enhance or hinder the establishment of the proposed new culture. Discussions, training and other opportunities to support personal change should be provided so all in the company can fully engage in the personal changes required.
  5. Involvement and engagement – the process needs a critical mass of employees who are taking ownership of embarking on the required change and experimenting with expected new behaviours for the change to take root. This is catalysed through discussions and the sharing of ideas. It needs to attain collective momentum.
  6. Alignment – all the organisation’s policies, systems, processes, resources and technologies should be calibrated to support the new cultural direction. These would include typically-categorised human resources practices, like performance management, hiring, succession planning, recognition and reward systems.

Culture transformation is no small undertaking. It touches mind-sets, beliefs, behaviours and relationships. It needs to find its way into systems, processes and technology. Organisational performance and sustainability depends on it. As such, culture transformation should be tackled holistically by company leadership.