Here’s a dismal statistic from a recent survey of executives: a full 25% noted that culture efforts initiated at their organization yielded no tangible results.
In any large or well-established organization, behaviors can become so entrenched that it’s nearly impossible to undo them. And stuck behaviors belie a stuck company culture.
We’ve all witnessed (or made) attempts to stop smoking or improve organizational skills. People don’t change their habits easily — even when they have excellent reasons to do so. But with persistence and attention, habits can indeed be changed, and cultures can and do evolve. And the simpler the approach you take, the more effective you’ll be.
Whatever role you play in your company — CEO, senior leader, middle manager or frontline worker — you have the power to evolve the company culture. Instead of accepting the culture as immovable, focus on and accentuate its best aspects. You will help your organization let go of the old patterns that stall growth and progress, and stand in the way of achieving key objectives. The key is selective, targeted alignment rather than an effort to radically repeal and replace.
Focusing on these four vital elements can help truly shift your company culture and bring out its best:
1. Traits: The set of shared characteristics that represent the “family resemblance” of your entire enterprise— the qualities that transcend subcultures, and are at the heart of the shared assumptions people bring to work, and their emotional connection to what they do.
2. Keystone behaviors: The few carefully identified things that some people do, day after day, that would lead your company to succeed if they were replicated at greater scale.
3. Authentic informal leaders (AILs): That small percentage of people in your company who have a high degree of “emotional intuition” or social connectedness stand out. Identify these, and you can cultivate them to help motivate employees and align with your goals.
4. Metrics: The integrated, thought measures used to track progress, encourage the self-reinforcing cycle of true, lasting change, and link to business performance.
As a leader, you need to help those in your sphere of influence become aligned with the company strategy. That means acting with clarity and discipline and making difficult choices. It means narrowing your focus — to those resonant traits, compelling behaviors, influential “authentic informal leaders.” Granted, it’s not easy. What would happen if, right now, you had to select the three keystone actions your company should take immediately to build a better culture? You can probably think of twelve, and you’ll probably have a good reason to include each one. But select just three or four: if you can’t narrow down that list, you and everyone in your organization will be overwhelmed.
Another reason to go with the few, not the many: it will be very difficult to measure any change with so many elements. You won’t even know which new behaviors have catalyzed new results. If you want to be effective at change or boosting performance, you need to focus your attention on the critical few.
Maintain a sharp focus on these four elements and you can reduce complexity and have a positive, informal, and lasting cultural impact on performance. This approach taps into the power of simplicity and takes the emotional dimension of human behavior into account. It also strengthens community connections by encouraging the workforce to look to peers and colleagues for insight, support, and encouragement. When people you trust and admire can model and enable a few key behaviors and then help others do the same, those behaviors will spread quickly — and stick.
Complexity is distracting. Comprehensiveness wastes energy. To carry everyone forward together, you need crystal-clear simplicity and a few elements. You don’t need a lot of targets to hit or results to generate. You need to unify your organization’s people around a common, clear cultural movement, driven by a core of keystone behaviors and positive emotions.
If you can identify and deploy those critical few elements within the cultural situation in your work environment, you will create clarity and meaning for others. People around you will be more likely to make an emotional, not just a rational, commitment to change. They will trust and respect your choice of direction, and look for ways to follow it. Whether you are a leader close to the front lines or a CEO, it’s likely that that your career will known for your ability to successfully shift a cultural situation. And as you inspire enthusiasm and creativity, you can build the kind of powerful company that people recognize for its effectiveness, and its innate value.
Jon Katzenbach is the author of the bestselling “The Wisdom of Teams.” The founder of the Katzenbach Center at Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, he has been an advisor on organizations and culture for more than forty years and writes extensively on leaders, organizations and teaming. Gretchen Anderson is a director at the Katzenbach Center who works with client teams across the globe. James Thomas is a partner with PwC’s Strategy&, and leads the Katzenbach Center in the Middle East. Their new book is The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters.