What It Takes to Change An Organization’s Culture

Note: This is part two of an interview conducted by Tim Kuppler with organization culture pioneer Larry Senn. Part one published yesterday. You can find it here.

One of the greatest business challenges is effectively changing a workplace culture. It’s one that Larry Senn has been taking on for nearly four decades.

In an interview, he discussed the need for organizations to diagnose their culture, detailing what’s good and what needs to change, and the hows and whys of culture change. In today’s second part of the two part interview, Larry explains what it takes for an organization to change and how purpose and mood fit into the overall picture.

Insight #7 – Reinforce the targeted behaviors in many ways

Culture is kind of the water we swim in… We typically form a culture leadership team in an organization. Once companies are really clear on the ideal culture they want, then they need to adjust their hiring selection process, new employee orientation, performance management programs, succession planning, communications, etc. to align with it.

Insight #8: Your purpose can be a North Star to bring out the best

Senn Delaney Purpose signI think purpose is where culture was at about 10 years ago. We want to get people to really sign up for different behaviors because they have a higher purpose. The idea of an organization discovering what its noble cause or higher purpose is brings out the best in people. We tend to be at our best when we are connected to a purpose that is not about us, but about something bigger than us. We work with all of our clients in helping them be clearer on what their purpose is. Why do they exist? What do they contribute to society? If they can have a North Star as a purpose, and then the right kind of behaviors, (since) culture is to fulfill that purpose, they tend to get the highest results.

Insight #9: Mood is critical for building healthy cultures

the-mood-elevator-92x300Every moment of every day in our lives, we ride this thing I call the “Mood Elevator.” It is what our feelings are at any moment in time. At the higher levels, we’re creative, resourceful, grateful, and innovative. At the lower levels we’re insecure, worried, bothered, self-righteous.

Think about it in terms of fulfilling purpose. When we’re about purpose, we tend to be at our best and operating at the higher states of the Mood Elevator. Those are the times that we are at the top or our game, where we feel we can handle whatever is coming at us. It’s those times where you are in the flow and you’ll have an insight or idea, and you don’t know where it came from.

Learning to ride the Mood Elevator is important because we all won’t always be up. In fact, have you ever said something to a loved one you wish you could take back? Have you ever written an email that you shouldn’t have written? Where were you on the Mood Elevator? You were likely at the lower floors, where your thinking is unreliable.

Healthy cultures are cultures in which more people are operating at their best more of the time, in the higher states of the Mood Elevator. That’s when they have the best behaviors to create a culture.

Insight #10–The biggest factor in successful culture change is the CEO

The biggest single factor is the CEO. If they have the passion, if they stay the course, culture change will work. Typically, if there are problems, it may have (been) the result of a change in a CEO mid-stream or a CEO with not enough commitment for the longer term to make culture change happen.

Insight #11: It’s critical to have sufficient energy, momentum and mass

The first misconception is that it takes a lot of time to change a culture. What’s interesting is that the biggest criticism I get from CEOs is, “Why didn’t you talk me into doing this sooner?”

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I was talking to one the other day who said, “Gosh, it just seems like too big an undertaking.” I explained that culture is not another initiative. Culture is the enabler of all initiatives. Once you begin to get it right, then decisions flow faster, and ideas flow better to make it happen.

So, it does need to start with a serious commitment with the senior team in the organization, and those leaders need to show up differently. People need to say, “What’s going on up there; why are they talking to me differently? Why are they coaching me now when they didn’t used to do that?’’

Insights #12: Leaders must be curious

At no time in our history has there been (a greater) need to be able to be agile because we don’t know exactly what’s coming at us. We don’t know where the next Uber is. Unless your organization can read the signs, and adjust quickly, it may not survive. One of the biggest things our clients are asking us for is to help us be more agile and innovative.

There’s a state at the middle level on the Mood Elevator — curious. Curious is a very powerful level because if someone does something you don’t understand, you either go to judgment or curiosity. If you live at curiosity then that creates a growth mind-set, which creates more innovation and agility.

What troubles Larry Senn most?

What troubles me most (about culture) is that people aren’t going about it comprehensively enough. It’s like everybody says they’re in the culture business no matter what they do. And everybody has a little piece of culture, but it’s the kind of thing where you have to really hit the culture with critical mass; you can’t just go around the edges.

I think people are not taking on culture holistically enough, and they’re also trying to do it intellectually. People can define culture, and they can measure culture, but the biggest reason cultures can’t change is that they can’t change the behaviors of people. Unless you really have some kind of process that creates these deeper-level commitments to life change in people, you’re not going to get the best culture.

This interview originally appeared on Culture University.

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He co-authored the 2014 book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. He previously managed substantial workplace culture transformations as an industry executive and was President and Senior Consultant at Denison Consulting. Contact him at Tim.Kuppler@HumanSynergistics.com.

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