When I entered the world of work it never would have occurred to me to ask a prospective employer “what’s the culture like here?”, and that’s despite the fact that I’d just graduated with a degree in Cultural Anthropology. Times have changed, but why?

Aside from the persistent belief that culture beats out strategy as a factor for organizational success, the last decade has seen social media become ubiquitous. Sites like Glassdoor, Twitter, and LinkedIn have significantly increased the transparency we have into the culture of organizations we buy from and aspire to work for, and consumer and worker behavior is changing in response. High-profile scandals and unethical business practices can explode across social networks, impacting the bottom line faster than ever before. Admired cultures can become legendary, held up as the critical competitive advantage key to an organization’s success, and a powerful means of attracting and retaining the best talent.

Given this new reality, it’s no wonder that organizations and CEOs continue to view culture as a critical concern.

“…we believe it is critical to have a long-term focus on building a respectful and transparent culture within the organization. This view appears to be shared by CEOs in our survey, three in four of whom (74 percent) say they are placing greater importance on trust, values and culture in order to sustain their future.” KPMG’s 2017 CEO Outlook Survey

There’s No Such Thing as a Culture Turnaround

More often than not, CEOs who see culture as a priority also express a desire to change their culture for better alignment to their organization’s strategic objectives, whether that’s becoming more innovative and agile, or increasing collaboration.

By the time a CEO or her executive team have engaged a consultant to deliver this change, they may have already formed a view that what’s needed are sweeping programs and campaigns, yet these approaches rarely succeed.

For leaders and consultants who are accustomed to tackling big problems head-on, culture change can feel like trying to nail Jello to a wall, for good reason. As culture change agents, unless we can help organizational leaders think and act more laterally when it comes to culture change, we’re virtually guaranteed to miss the mark at delivering radical changes.

In part, this is due to the qualities of culture.

Culture is Deep and Largely Invisible

One factor is that culture is deep. Although we often point to the artifacts of organizational culture that are visible to us, like the physical office environment, the way people dress at work, or how punctual people tend to be, these grow out of invisible layers of shared meaning and assumptions.

Even the most energetic culture change programs cannot succeed if they are solely top-down, because trying to control what people believe is nearly impossible. Culture change programs that seek to do this lead employees to feel that the organization sees them as objects needing to be “fixed.” Resistance naturally follows, as does cynicism about future ‘culture change’ initiatives.

Mandating behavior changes from the top might appear to work for a time, particularly if organizations also align incentives and penalties. But when you push a system, it pushes back, even if it’s not immediately visible. Counter-cultures pop up, and people find inventive ways to assert themselves and their beliefs.

A larger societal example is Prohibition as compared to anti-smoking efforts. Prohibition banned all alcohol in the United States in 1920, and gave us the speakeasy subculture, and a thriving cross-border black market between Canada and the US (you’re welcome America!) before being abandoned. Smoking, on the other hand, has been approached incrementally and from multiple social and economic channels, resulting in a social attitude shift towards this behavior that has been far more effective at achieving widespread change.

Culture as Emergent System

Culture is also emergent and thus surprisingly stable—while leaders certainly have an outsized influence on a culture, they don’t transmit it one-way like a radio signal, which they can control. Rather, culture is transmitted between each person in the culture: people learn how to be a member of the culture by interacting with and observing others in the workplace (not just what they say, but what they do). Then, when they act in accordance with the observed culture, they become transmitters themselves, and further reinforce the legitimacy of the prevailing culture. Culture isn’t made once, it is constantly being made and remade like a giant feedback loop reinforcing the existing culture. And that makes it resistant to change.

Do you know what a murmuration is? It’s the name given to a large flock of starling, which have a tendency to gather in whirling, synchronous clouds. They are an incredible natural phenomenon, able to move as a unit without scattering in different directions or crashing into one another.

A simplified explanation is that each bird is paying vigilant attention to the movement and behavior of its neighboring birds and adjusting its flight accordingly in real time. If you get enough of a change in direction in one part of the group, it can spread across the entire flock. This is a reasonably good analogy for the emergent nature of culture.

Transmitting Culture Change Through Conversations

This might all seem theoretical, but it actually has enormous practical significance for culture change work in organizations.

Although it will often feel counter-intuitive, when you help your clients avoid sweeping, top-down programs, and instead use a lateral approach in combination with leadership commitment and modeling, you can work with, rather than against these qualities of organizational culture.

One way to do that is to find what’s already working—individuals and teams within your client organization that are currently operating in a way that is more aligned to the desired culture, and amplify their power as ‘cultural transmitters.’ Actionable Conversations is an ideal vehicle to invite these individuals and teams to discuss a topic relevant to the desired culture and way of working. As Conversation leaders or participants, these individuals are perfectly positioned to share their behaviors and beliefs with others in the organization.

When we give these culture transmitters and their peers the power to select a behavior change commitment, we are tapping into and capitalizing on the emergent property of culture. We are asking individual culture transmitters to shift their transmission ever so slightly, in a way that they themselves choose, which has individual meaning and value to them, but also aligns to a broader organizational change objective.

They tweak their transmission, not for a day, but for 30 days, and then further after their next conversation and commitment. This allows us to get inside that self-reinforcing feedback loop and work with it, rather than against it. It also provides visibility into what is actually happening in your client’s organizations through the data collected by the platform, allowing you to deepen your impact as a culture change advisor.

This kind of coordinated, deliberate, and persistent approach results in the accrual of smaller, less dramatic changes, that over time can allow the culture to reach a tipping point within the organization. New behaviors become part of the culture, rather than being forced in from the outside, and they proliferate through the organization because of that.

As Alyssa Burkus mentioned in her recent post Technology Change: Overcoming Resistance, “no one wants change to be done to them, they want to feel in control of the change that is occurring.” My own recent experience participating in my first Conversation reminded me of how easy it is to feel committed to a change when I choose it myself, and have the support and tools to follow through on that commitment.  

As you work with your clients and prospects, organizational culture is likely to be top of mind. This directive may be a challenge for some, but for others, will represent a massive opportunity for increased client impact, shifting cultures, and better organizational outcomes. The key will be a mindset shift for you and your clients—away from top down directives and “culture change initiatives,” toward embracing culture as an emergent system that only shifts through regular, sustained, incremental change.

Culture Change