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"There is now abundant evidence that culture makes a difference to performance; we know that leaders increasingly need concepts and tools for working with culture in varied and subtle ways” Ed Schein The Corporate Culture Survival Guide 


Article: Leading Culture Change: tricks, traps and tips to take on board for success

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Articles - Leading Culture Change

Issue #12 CC E-News

"Leading Culture Change -- Fact and Fantasy"

A Leadership Lounge Presentation

by Bill Cropper

April 2010

Workplace Culture --

What it is & Why it Matters...


“We need to change the culture” is a much-repeated management mantra on almost every leader’s lips these days. Yet culture is notoriously difficult to change. It wins out time and again over attempts to change it.

It sometimes seems so intangible, elusive and hard to grasp.  In frustration, some toss in the towel, dismissing culture as one of those soft-issues that’s too fluffy and ephemeral to manage. Other times, it gets discounted as a trivial side-show or distraction not deserving of serious attention.

Research shows culture profoundly affects every facet of an organisation. It determines what’s possible or not in an organisation. It’s arguably the ‘X’ factor in change success. Companies from Google to Virgin are quick to trace their success to dynamic cultures that foster high levels of commitment, innovation, employee satisfaction and identification with what the firm is all about.


Great cultures are both talent-attracters and retainers. Everyone wants to work there and they want to stay. People often leave a place because they don’t fit in the culture


Constructive cultures help people achieve, sparking-off higher levels of commitment and engagement. Disengagement is epidemic at work, with huge indirect losses in productivity.


Exceptional cultures generate energy, ideas and improvement – they create cohesion and help people get along well, collaborate with each other, and stick together. Disgruntled, de-motivated people drag down these things.

Most leaders are acutely aware how constructive cultures help people perform – and equally aware how dislocated ones breed under-performance. Leaders are often told ‘getting the culture right’ is the most critical thing to focus on for sustainable results – and we frequently define a great leader as someone turns a dysfunctional culture around.

Culture is also often the hidden factor in change success too. For instance, change strategies that work in one organisation can fall flat in another – and the variable is often culture. While there are no magic bullets or quick-fixes, if you understand culture, and learn some lessons about what seems to work and what doesn’t, then you have a chance of changing it for the better.

"The big secret to our unique Virgin culture is simple there is no secret.  We just know that creating and maintaining our enviable culture is all about infusing our core values into everything we do we get that right and the Virgin culture just flows.  Our culture is unique we know it, we're proud of it and we work hard to make it a reality." Cultureandvalues/index.htm

   So -- What Makes Up Culture?  

Culture is commonly described as “the way we do things around here” but it’s much more than that.


Culture comprises things we have to know, do, think and say in order to be accepted and identified as part of a particular group.


It’s the cryptic encoding that determines how people co-exist, how they respond in various circumstances and how they make sense of what happens and what is done. Culture’s the glue holding everything else in organisations together (Goffee and Jones 1996).

Put simply, it’s the sum total of everything that’s been going on and continues to be ongoing in an organisation.

Ed Schein, long-time cultural thinker, says culture is “a pattern of basic assumptions - invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration - that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to these problems.”

Of course none of these general definitions really get at the components that make up a culture. We often describe culture as a ‘cloth’ composed of many threads – myriad, complex interplays between many, often unnoticeable, patterns of…

What Makes up Culture - 7 Dimensions Diagram


Thinking: prevailing mental models, values, beliefs and tacit assumptions held collectively that often operate unconsciously and define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ way, how we see the organisation, how we see ourselves and how we see each other.


Behaving: the accepted behavioural rules resident in a culture that govern the way people interact. These rules aren’t usually explicitly stated but they’re implicitly, and again, unconsciously followed anyway.


Tradition: the stories, myths, legends, creeds, customs, rituals that store meaning, create cultural identity, continually reinforce the prevailing culture and deflect efforts to change it.


Feelings: the stream of underlying emotions people most commonly experience, display, act out or hide that flow through a culture, effecting how we treat each other, how we behave, how we think and how satisfied, productive and happy we are at work.


Conversations: The nature and quality of conversations we have that include how open we are, how we handle disagreements, what topics can be discussed and which are ‘undiscussable’.


Leadership: The style of leaders, how this resonates with people and how their words and actions are perceived by others.


Responsiveness: The way people engage with and respond to change in their external environment; how reactive or pro-active and how rigid or adaptive the organisation is, in navigating political, environment, social, and ‘futures’ contexts.

Cataloguing cultural components provides some markers to measure culture against, but keep in mind it’s overly-simplistic. Taken too literally, a components-approach can trick us into:


Thinking we can grasp culture by breaking it down into basic elements or characteristics.


The delusion culture can be easily controlled by simply adjusting or replacing parts

Culture isn’t a machine you can just ‘fix’ or adjust. There isn’t a culture control dial somewhere in your organisation to twiddle. While we all act to generate, preserve, influence or change it, culture is an ephemeral entity that isn’t inside anyone's particular sphere of control.

So what’s the bottom-line on change and culture? As long as you get most of the same outcomes, on balance it’s easier to change your change to suit the culture if you can, rather than change the culture to suit your change. Often though, culture itself is the major block to change success or survival so you have to tackle it.

  Read about our Culture Change Tips for Success... Download Article

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