To change the culture you’ve got to change the people

workplace culture

If you want to shift a culture, then fire everyone and hire different people who care about what you care about. Of course, that’s not practical at any scale. Author and former foreign policy adviser to President Obama, Ben Rhodes, articulates it more eloquently in his book The World As It Is

“You can’t change things unless you change the people making the decisions.”

You’ve got the change the people. Literally, find new people. Or help the people you have to change. Any shift in culture will require one of those changes.

And in case you think culture is fluffy stuff, recent investigations into bad behaviour by people in financial services and other sectors demonstrate why this matters and the ripples it causes. Culture is a behaviour glue, binding the actions and decisions of an organisation.

In his book What We Owe Each Other author and moral philosopher Thomas Scanlon says:

“When there are important effects that can be achieved only through independent action by many agents acting without direct communication, the existence of an established (social) practice co-ordinating those actions is an important public good.”

He’s referring to society more broadly. However, the idea can also apply to organisations. And I like the frame of an “established social practice” as a more tangible way to think about culture.

The social practice of culture emerges from the organisation’s values. So, if what you’re claiming are your values don’t meet a social practice test (how you do things) then forget attempting to change anything until you figure out the real ones.

A question that might help you is ‘when don’t people work out around here?’ People usually get hired for what they can do, and leave or are fired because of who they are. So a deep dive into the ones who didn’t work out is a handy short-cut into understanding ‘how we do things’.

Much like ‘why?’ is a crummy question to understand your purpose, ‘what are your values?’ is an equally useless starting point to understand what they are, and usually leads to some combination from the top 10 list of usual suspects. Simply put, values are social practice articulated.

So if you needed another reason to avoid the feel-good tropes of ‘honesty, integrity, trust, fun and teamwork’ there it is. And once you know your values, take a close critical look at the actions and decisions they are driving and you’ll see what’s feeding your culture.

Returning to Rhodes point about changing the people. Accomplishing the feat requires changing how those people think and act. And you can’t wave a change program wand and hey presto six months later have a whole different culture emerge like a proverbial butterfly from a cocoon. It’s a
long-term incremental process of adjust, shift and repeat.

Here, the term ‘social practice’ is illustrative. Any culture is an ongoing practice requiring discipline and staying power, something many short-term minded businesses today are ill-equipped for. And something sorely absent from discussions about brand.

The brand formula couples values with purpose under identity. When the ‘many agents’ of the organisation use identity as a social practice to shape and inform their everyday unheroic work, promises you can keep emerge, people’s experience aligns with their expectations. And the brand is a result.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Values are a company’s engine room — you won’t go anywhere without them

NOW READ: Culture fits or culture mis-fits is the wrong distinction


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