3 steps for HR to effective culture change

Many CEOs and HR practitioners lack a thorough understanding of culture, and as a result, attempts to change culture often miss the deeper aspects of cultures such as beliefs, world views and the ethos of employees, according to an expert in the field.

CEOs too often assume that they only have one culture to change rather than many, said Michael Henderson, a “corporate anthropologist” and founder of Cultures AT Work.

“Most organisations with more than fifteen employees have multiple cultures, however many CEOs struggle to recognise this,” he said.

Henderson also observed that many CEOs don’t pay enough attention to the alignment of workplace culture and business strategy.

“As a consequence, failure to harness the two inevitably leads to lower levels of productivity and performance,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest misconception for CEOs is that they can effectively lead change without having a true understanding of culture and it’s importance .

“To lead effective change, CEOs must have a deep understanding of culture formation, how it’s structured and what enables a culture to change or not,” said Henderson, who recently authored Above the Line: How to Create a Company Culture that Engages Employees, Delights Customers and Delivers Results.

He also observed that “HR practitioners often regard culture based on the flawed notion that humans are resources, (hence the title HR) rather than a more productive perspective of considering how they can support the resourcing humans (RH).

“This is more than just a play on words; it identifies an underlying flawed perspective from which so many of HR initiatives are driven, including cultural change,” he said.

The use of engagement surveys as a useful method to understand and interpret change is another common HR misconception, added Henderson, who said engagement surveys only uncover employees’ perceptions of culture, rather than revealing the objective nature of the culture itself.

Steps to culture change
There are a number of steps both HR and CEOs can take in order to effect a meaningful and positive culture change, said Henderson.

“Firstly, both CEOs and HR should learn more about culture and its relationship to strategy,” he said.

“Secondly, I strongly recommend any culture change initiative should start before it’s needed.

“Too many change programs start when the requirements for change are already well advanced.”

Paying more attention to culture on an ongoing basis enables leaders to recognise the early warning signs that change is required and in doing so, allows them to start addressing this immediately, he said.

“Thirdly, I can’t stress enough the importance of communicating to people why culture change is needed, before speaking about what the changes will mean and how they will be conducted,” said Henderson.

“Too many culture change projects overlook the importance of clearly explaining why change is required, and as a consequence they fail to effectively address passive resistance amongst employees.

“Explaining why change is needed not only clarifies the intent but it also invites everyone to contribute. Without this all change efforts are doomed.”

Culture change pros and cons
If a cultural change process is addressed effectively, Henderson said the result is a faster and more effective approach to develop, nurture and leverage culture to achieve higher levels of staff engagement, increased customer satisfaction and improved business performance.

“It is critical that HR educate incoming CEOs of the nature of the company culture and the link and impact the culture has to the delivery of business strategy,” he said.

“Clearly, new leaders cannot be expected to understand the nuances of the company culture until they have been immersed in it themselves.

“Culture shifts are conducted to enhance the delivery of the organisation’s strategy, regardless of who is leading the business. All short term tactical objectives and projects should be understood and addressed in the wider context of strategy and culture.”

If HR practitioners don’t have and understanding of culture, or are new to effective culture change, Henderson recommended seeking support and advice from people who are experienced.

“Culture change is a complex process conducted over multiple levels of cultural structure and dynamics, many of which are intangible and symbolic,” he said.

“Failure to understand and work with this complexity usually leads to ineffective, costly and frustrating culture change.”

See the next issue of Inside HR magazine for Michael Henderson’s article on 7 ways HR can contribute to, create and sustain a high performance workplace culture