The culture of a company is critical to its business success. It should be something that all staff can feel proud of, aligned to and empowered to influence. When it is properly defined and experienced on a daily basis, a strong company culture is the glue that binds all the human elements of a business together, and when you have everyone pulling in the same direction, incredible things can happen. The converse is also true. Allow your company culture to become watered down or misaligned with your mission and business strategy and the whole business can begin to unravel.
But how easy, or indeed realistic, is it to establish a strong company culture in a region like the GCC, which is such a melting pot of different cultures with very different values? In my 20 years in change management, I have encountered scepticism about whether changing a company culture is really achievable or if it is ultimately determined by the culture of the society where the company is based. I can say that cultural change is possible within any business and any region, provided it is properly planned and implemented.
So, how do you go about planning and implementing an effective cultural code?
Company culture in practice
We sometimes forget that businesses are entities built on human resources and therefore heavily influenced by human sentiments. No matter how facelessly corporate or hard-nosed a business may appear to be on the outside, beneath the skin it will be driven by humans, who bring their own values to work every day, whatever those values may be. So, if you can get all your people aligned behind the same values, you’ll be well on your way to achieving success.
To realize this, business leaders need to define what they want their company culture to be and how they will involve employees at all levels to make it so. Yet, it is not enough to carry out a few consultation exercises, or set up an incentive scheme and expect results. For cultural change to really occur, leaders need to be willing to change the way they themselves work.
First of all, a company culture should not be imposed upon its staff. They should be invited to contribute towards its definition and then consulted on a regular basis as to whether or not they feel the culture aligns with the work they’re being asked to carry out. Everyone knows what a mission statement is and what values are – but the important question is, "Are they appropriate for your business?" It is no good paying lip service to ethical or environmental issues, for example, if you don’t back that up with your behaviour.
Shifting ingrained barriers to change
There is a widespread feeling that too many managers and senior executives are failing to live according to the declared company culture, a feeling that breeds mistrust and low morale. It is a situation that arises through neglect– allowing values and core principles to grow stale and meaningless due to the lack of a regular process of evaluation.
The change required can be achieved within any business, provided the willingness is there among its leaders. Among GCC countries, the prevalent leadership style tends to be directive, so changing it is not a path to embark on lightly. What is more, cultural change often involves attempts to introduce management techniques based on Western ideologies, which can cause friction among companies in GCC states.
Where such difficulties arise, it just means change has to be managed with sensitivity and subtlety. In fact, that applies to all change. Regardless of cultural background, employees are more likely to feel engaged and committed if they know their feelings and ideas are being taken into account.
Changing your organization by organizing change
How often are your employees encouraged to think about the culture of the company they work for? A complex and ambitious cultural change project, arriving out of the blue, is likely to leave many scratching their heads and feeling alienated. Explaining to all your staff why there is a need for changing the company culture is your first task.
Once they have the issue in the front of their minds, your employees will be in a better place to contribute to the shaping of your cultural strategy. For a successful strategy to emerge, you need to involve many stakeholders from all levels of your business. The culture affects everyone, so involve everyone in shaping it.
As well as defining what your ideal company culture looks like, you need to assess the current culture as well. Overlaying the results of the current versus desired culture assesses the gap and reveals the true scope of the undertaking.
The more staff interaction you have at this stage, the better. Have teams discuss their findings in groups from multiple levels of the company. Another benefit of doing this is that you will be able to identify aspects you are already happy with in your cultural build. As well as giving positive reinforcement, to show that there is some good work already being done, this can have the effect of reducing the fear of changing too much or too quickly.
Personal plans for group gains
There are different ways to view the process of organizational change. Seeing it as a sequential process helps to break down the necessary tasks into a logical sequence. The steps to take should at least contain the following:
- Identify a need for change
- Gain top management support
- Select an intervention technique
- Overcome resistance to change
- Evaluate the change process
Intervention techniques are what will really make or break your change project. The way you merge the change process with the workload of your staff needs to be carefully considered. You could end up alienating them if you try to get them to do something they don’t want to do, or don’t see the value in.
To produce change that is long lasting, the new information has to be forcibly delivered in your company action plan, to ensure employees understand how and why the change is being made. One way to show your employees how to take responsibility for this change and to connect with the project is to have them create personal action plans. These can cover a wide range of things like giving and soliciting feedback at least once a week, discussing and distributing team workload every week, picking up the phone within three rings, or answering emails the same day. The main point is that the actions are realistic and the individuals are committed to them.
Evaluate to consolidate
As with any strategy, regular monitoring and evaluation are crucial. To make sure you are on the right track as far as your employees are concerned, you can use frequent pulse surveys. Depending on the culture you’re trying to achieve, you can use metrics relating to communication, wellness/health, collaboration and managerial support, to see how well you’re working towards your goals. Also, on a regular basis, let customers assess how well the company’s actual behaviour aligns with its cultural statements.
Changing company culture is a long-term challenge. A strategic approach is essential in order to stay on track and make sure you’re focused on the results. Culture can come across as a rather vague term, but when you approach it with a purpose and a clearly defined process, it will have a measurable effect on your business.
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