Preserving vs. shaping culture?

by | Jul 1, 2015 | Blog | 0 comments

flag at half mast To what extent are you preserving the good, bad and ugly of your organizational culture versus actively shaping it?

If your organization is like most that I work with, you are trying to adjust your culture to fit changing circumstances.

For example, you may desire employees to…break down silos and work more collaboratively….be more responsive to customers….be more adept at change, etc.

Yet, Peter Drucker’s caution from years ago still prevails: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It’s hard to change the way people work and feel about traditions, especially if they’re deeply ingrained in the organization’s history and people’s unconsciousness.

Familiar actions and symbols become comfortable habits that some accept without questioning. The regular Monday morning staff meeting….the summer work schedule…the recognition just for the sales team.

Sometimes though, exceptional circumstances—especially a crisis—can trigger a golden opportunity. Suddenly, it becomes easier to question current practices. And, people can start not only talking about important cultural landmarks, but also considering changes to take.

Consider the Charleston, SC Bible Study Shooting in mid-June. Just days after nine individuals were massacred, the discussion about the event took a twist. The conversation broadened to include the appropriateness of still embracing the Confederate flag and other Confederacy symbols 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Many of us in South Carolina were outraged that in the aftermath of the tragedy, officials quickly lowered the US flag and the South Carolina flag at the state capitol grounds to honor the victims, but left the Confederate flag flying high.

We newcomers were surprised to learn that there’s no flexibility for the flag built into the legal system—even though nimbleness is a prized attribute many of us value today.

About 15 years ago, during the last major controversy about the Confederate flag, state lawmakers voted that only they could alter the flag—but if they met a high hurdle. Each branch of the state’s general assembly must vote two-thirds in the affirmative to adopt the proposed change after the third reading of the bill.

The governor, who has no legal control over the flag, heard the SC citizens as we questioned the status quo after the shootings, as did a number of state legislators.

The legislature has now taken the first tiny step toward change by agreeing to meet in an official session and debate what to do with the flag. (And yes, it will be a debate because many see the flag as an important symbol of heritage rather than racial divisions.)

Cultural wars as this generally aren’t as fierce inside organizations. However schisms can exist, which hurts the ability of the organizations and employees from working at their optimal performance.

That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to organizational symbols and traditions, and unintended biases and behavior. Furthermore, you need to assess the extent to which these symbols and traditions are holding people back or helping them move forward.

Take these three objectives, which some of my clients have been actively addressing with targeted actions that are shaping their culture.

  • More appropriate recognition. Rather than continuing to honor the “Star of the Month,” instead acknowledging the “Collaborator of the Month.” The criteria to be named a “star” included hitting individual performance goals, showing perseverance (and yes, there could be collateral damage along the way) and working hard (not necessarily smart). By contrast,  the “collaborator” must be taking the initiative to involve others, working on projects with individuals in other functions and getting results.
  • More inclusiveness. Rather than tapping the “usual suspects” to participate in special task forces and teams, instead casting a wider net and requesting interested individuals to self-nominate to take part. By including more individuals, everyone can benefit from greater diversity of thought, skills and experiences. Plus, the organization can spread the load among more people.
  • More conversation. Rather than allocate 10 minutes at the end of each quarterly town hall meeting for employee questions and answers, deploying leaders to plants and offices to meet with employees and ask them their point of view about key company issues. By making an effort to listen to employees, leaders are better able to demonstrate respect, which is one of the organization’s core values.

With these new actions, leaders are not erasing their organization’s history or disparaging others. Instead, they’re shaping the culture—and future—that will better prepare their organizations and employees to address today’s opportunities and challenges.

What traditions and symbols deserve a second look in your organization today?


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