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The Critical Few: Working with Your Culture to Change It

The Critical Few

CULTURE is hard to change. And we’re usually fighting against it. But what if we used the culture to change it? What if by focusing on a few critical elements we could work with our culture instead of against it?

In the Global Culture Survey 2018 by The Katzenbach Center, a whopping 80% of respondents say their organization’s culture must evolve in the next five years for their company to succeed, grow, and retain the best people. I think we’re all there, so the challenge is how to make that happen.

In The Critical Few, the authors—Jon Katzenbach, Gretchen Anderson, and James Thomas—describe organizational culture as “a collection of deeply held attitudes, entrenched habits, repeated behaviors, latent emotions, and collective perceptions of the world. Culture is the shared set of assumptions we all bring when we work together—our unspoken expectations of one another.” It’s easy to underestimate the powerful force exerted by the culture when trying to change it.

Instead of issuing top-down, comprehensive, urgent, cultural change directives, you’ll get further faster with real transformation, if you can get the “important emotional forces in your current culture working with you. You identify and make use of what already exists. Chances are, there are some reservoirs of genuine positive emotional energy lurking somewhere within your current cultural situation that can be harnessed if brought to light.” The idea then is to align how people behave and feel—those cultural elements that motivate your workforce—with your goals and what is necessary to make the company successful.

But you need to keep it simple. The tendency is to include too much—too comprehensive.

Complexity is distracting; comprehensiveness is wasted energy. You need crystal-clear simplicity and a small group of elements that will carry everyone forward together. You need to unify your organization’s people around a common, clear cultural movement, driven by a core of keystone behaviors and positive emotions.

It’s easy to create a long list of very important and necessary keystone actions that are vital to building a better culture. But if you can’t narrow it down to three or four, “you’ll be overwhelmed when you start to work with them, and so will everyone else in the organization.”

So we need to focus on three specific elements they call the critical few to have the most success: existing cultural traits, keystone behaviors, and authentic or critical informal leaders. Here’s how they describe each:

Existing Cultural Traits

A set of shared characteristics that represent the “family resemblance” of your entire enterprise—the qualities that transcend subcultures and are at the heart of the shred assumptions people bring to work and their emotional connection to what they do.

Traits are not values. They reflect how things are actually done. When we understand what core qualities make up the “family resemblance,” we can than encourage the most the best and useful aspects of those qualities to bring about the change in culture.

The traits you choose to focus on should “reflect your company’s essential nature, resonate across the enterprise, trigger a positive emotional response, and support your company’s cause.”

Emotional energy is released as traits (and behaviors) are defined because traits, when well-articulated, reinforce and remind people within an organization of their sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.

Keystone Behaviors

A few carefully identified things that some people do, day after day, that would lead your company to succeed if they were replicated at greater scale.

Culture change is slow process, but it begins with specific changes in behavior. As Richard Pascale wrote, “People are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting.”

You are looking for behaviors that, when encouraged, will move your organization in the direction of your stated aspirations and your strategic intent, all while aligning to those fundamental traits of who you are as a company.

An effective behavior for your company should: Harness existing sources of pride or emotional energy to drive intrinsic motivation toward your aspirations; Address barriers that get in the way of realizing your aspirations; and Encourage the replication of actions that enable your goals.

Authentic Informal Leaders

A few people, or at least a reasonably small percentage of your company’s people, who stand out because they have a high degree of “emotional intuition” or social connectedness.

Authentic Informal Leaders (AILs) are people who are already demonstrating the kinds of behavior you want to encourage. And they are not necessarily your high-flyers. These are the people too that can give you a better understanding to how things really work in your organization. Work with them from the beginning.

They note thought that AILs may be thought of as skeptics, resistors, and even “mouthy.” Their value is that they “aren’t just there to channel a message—they are there to translate it if they believe in it and also to call foul if they do not and push the leadership to try harder! Their talent for sensing and responding to what others think and feel means that they will choose a way of communicating key ideas that will strike a chord at all levels of the organization.”

You can’t point your finger and mandate behavior change. But you can intervene to create the conditions that make the right behaviors emerge. You’re looking to surround your people with a coherent system of “enablers,” some formal and some informal, that all, taken together, suggest a new path.

Too often we try to implement changes as an initiative against something when we would be better off working with the prevailing culture to shape something better. These initiatives are usually communication-led transformation rather than a true culture-led, behavior-led, transformation. Communications-led transformations rarely produce a lasting effect on how we feel about what we do and therefore actually change what we do. Lasting cultural changes must have an emotional commitment.

You can find more information on this concept on the Strategy& website.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:34 PM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Culture , Management



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