Recently, I met with the CEO of a large SME. When we last spoke she was, frankly, looking drained and depleted. This time around, she was positively far more positive and looking forward to sharing her vision and passion with her colleagues. We talked at length about her vision for the type of culture she wants to create in her business.
It’s great she’s so positive, and she’s right to ask the culture question linked with vision; culture is unbelievably powerful. It defines what and how work actually gets done. In the field of organisational psychology that I work in, Transactional Analysis, there is a simple yet powerful way of looking at company culture.
The concept is that culture is an output of the interplay between the ‘structures’ within a company and the ‘dynamics’ of the people within it. By structures, I’m not talking of the buildings or space, although these are included, I’m primarily talking about tangible things like organisation charts, policies, documented procedures, appraisals, training, job descriptions, etc. Stuff you could put your hand on, should you so desire. Dynamics looks at how you can see people behaving in the company.
Structures heavily influence how we behave. Think about it, if you’re asked to clock-in to the factory and you’re paid based on your time on shift, you’re more likely to be on time. Or if you’ve never been trained to do the role you’ve been promoted to, once the congratulations and excitement are over, the anxiety and over-compensating behaviours based on your fears of inadequacy can make you ‘different’ from how you were before.
This is how culture gets formed. What and how we structure work – organise, measure, reward, penalise, and so on; this in turn influences people’s behaviour, which in turn re-impacts the structures, and so the loop goes on. Company culture forms from the interplay.
This means that to change a company’s culture, you need to do more than model good behaviours. You need to identify existing tangible structural ‘stuff’ then consistently and fairly implement the new policies, procedures, etc that will influence behaviour and, in time, change culture.
Yes, despite the naysayers and doom-mongers who try to tell me that you can’t change a company culture, er, yes you can. I’m not for one minute suggesting this is easy or can be done at lightning speed just because the leadership wants/states they want it done, to provide some sort of instant gratification, but you can change culture.
Leadership in forming and changing culture is so screamingly important. Leaders set the tone, model the acceptable behaviours and install the policies and procedures that structure the business. Leaders also have to take the, um, nonsense that gets flung at them psychologically. So, that’s the programme I’m now working on with my reinvigorated client CEO. We’re working on identifying the critical structures and observable dynamics in her company to influence where she wants the culture to change.