Managing Culture Change

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The inflated role that human resources professionals profess to have on culture change in the workplace needs to be tempered with a little reality. One of the most important functions in any business is strong, knowledgeable, and professional HR leadership, but in almost all cases they operate by the grace of company executive management that looks to them to be a value added to the decision making process… not to make those decisions. This is a classic case of a powerful staff function having a hand on the switch and the whistle, but they don’t drive the train. Vocal but naïve cheerleaders bring nothing to the table except for personal enthusiasm that will fade once reality sets in, but listen to them anyway. They do have an idea of what will not work. They just have a problem dealing with a realistic vision of how to implement and manage change.

It all begins with having vision. “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” Who said those famous words? Thucydides, over 2,400 years ago, claimed that “seeing” the future based on contemporary first-hand information requires a detailed analysis of cause/effect and fact checking to create strict standards. Times have changed and we know that it is possible to have inspiration without personal observation, but to ignore unquestionable facts and then acting without first disproving them shows more ego than common sense. The simple answer is that we never get anywhere unless we first know where we are going and are careful not to backtrack over ground we have already travelled. HR is a valuable ally to management in goal determination and attainment.

Once we have an idea of our goal, the next step is to remove processes that are detrimental to success and install tools that make it happen. Cultural change is a gradual movement in the aggregate behavior of an organization. Coercion or intimidation with punitive policies is the easiest way to fail miserably. Recognizing the valued traditions of the old organization and providing learning opportunities for developing a sharing of the corporate vision through incentives is a better way to engage the employee population. Old ideas die hard, but education and negotiation is preferable to elimination of personnel that resist changing. Measuring feedback from the system and tweaking management tools to fill gaps may mean refocusing the hiring objectives to shift the employee mindset. Changing the organization means insuring that candidates for employment are not measured against archaic standards. The selection criteria need to be tailored to fit tomorrow’s company and not yesterday.

A key signal to a shift in culture to employees in an established company is reorganization. Shuffling leadership can also insure that organizationally and personally the company is poised for change and will not backslide into the old ways. Communication to all stakeholders up, down, and laterally keeps the vision real and the goals clear. Smaller entrepreneurial companies that have growth aspirations have a hiring mantra that is slick and seductive: It is fun to work here. That element of fun may be difficult to see in a larger company, but it is also not the primary reason to work anywhere. The average tenure for all employees is 4.4 years, but 70% of recent college graduates report leaving their jobs within two years. Stability wins over hype every time. 

In a nutshell, a culture is not something to change overnight. It may take years to turn things around and longer if things are really bad. Is culture a factor in recruitment and retention? More than you may expect, but it is more important to celebrate where you are going than where you are now.

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