Musings on Culture Change, Part 4

January 29, 2013 — Leave A Comment


“Mirrors that hide nothing hurt me. But this is the hurt of purging and precious renewal ~ and these are the mirrors of dangerous grace.” ~ Walter Wangerin Jr.


Last week, I wrote that for a leader to inspire authentic culture change in an organization, he or she must do three things:

  1. Facilitate a process to help the culture see itself as it is right now.
  2. Enlist (not force!) the members of the culture toward a more compelling vision via an open honest conversation about who we are and who we want to be.
  3. Fully embody the new culture he or she wants everyone to live. Go first.

Here’s what I mean by these:

1. Facilitate a process to help the culture see itself as it is right now. To travel somewhere new, you need three pieces of information: Where the New Place is located, where you are now, and a strategic route to get from where you are to the new place you want to be. When many leaders try to shift their organizational culture, they often make the attempt with only the first piece of essential info in hand ~ i.e. where they want the culture to go. Any leader who has tried this learns the hard way that it simply doesn’t work…not because people are unwilling or don’t share the leader’s desire for change, but because they simply don’t yet have enough information to make the journey.

To go someplace new, you have to first know where you are. In coaching parlance, we call this “revealing the system to itself,” and honestly, this is by far the most important aspect of culture-change work, because until you and your team are crystal clear about the dynamics that are currently running your culture, you lack the collective awareness necessary to change it.

Without the proper skills and outside perspective, the work of “revealing the system to itself” is very difficult to do. A leader trying to change his own culture is tantamount to one American trying to help another American perceive all the nuances of how American culture is coloring and controlling their lives. For a culture to see itself, its members have to step out of their culture, and take an honest look at it from the outside. Only someone who has been outside the culture can take them there. This is why spending time in other countries is such a transformative experience for all who do it, because it allows us to step beyond our cultural bubble and see ourselves from the outside for the first time. It’s also why authentic culture-change work almost always requires a trained, external coach to come in and guide the process. Though some organizations chaff against the investment in time and money this caliber of culture-change work requires, the results speak for themselves.

2. Enlist (not force!) the members of the culture toward a more compelling cultural vision via an open honest conversation about who we are and who we want to be. In terms of culture, there’s a gulf of difference between compliance, and alignment. Compliance is about controlling behavior ~ that is, getting everyone to behave the way you want. Things like performance reviews, salary adjustments, promotions and demotions, employee guidelines, and performance perks are all primarily geared toward controlling behavior within an organization. But forcing compliance cannot produce culture change ~ at least, not the sort of culture change you actually want. In fact, many times these sorts of behavioral controls have a negative effect on culture, because by their very nature they tend to create an atmosphere of antagonism and distrust.

Alignment, however, is about the heart. Are your people’s hearts aligned together toward the same noble cause? Have they genuinely bought in to your organization’s mission, and its core values? Are they really “all in”? While you may be able to force compliance, you cannot force alignment. Alignment must be won. Literally, you have to win their hearts. To shift an organization’s culture, you have to win your people’s hearts toward a greater and more compelling vision ~ not of who you are and what you want to accomplish, but of who they are and the Noble Cause they are being invited to accomplish together.

For a leader, this means humbling yourself, letting go of control, and engaging in honest dialog with your people about who they are and who they want to be. It means serving them, and really listening. And it means inviting them to make the move from obedient workers to co-creators, not because you need them or because you pay them, but because they genuinely want to be a part of making the Noble Cause happen.

3. Fully embody the new culture he or she wants everyone to live. Go first. It seems obvious to say it, but changing the culture means changing yourself. This is true for the leader more than anyone. The way you have led up to now has largely created the culture you currently have. To have a different culture, you have to learn to lead differently. For most leaders, this means letting go of the need to be right, to be respected as “the expert,” or to control every outcome. It means allowing more mistakes & failures; even learning to celebrate them as an essential aspect of any culture that values creative risk. More than anything, it means relinquishing large chunks of authority in favor of empowering others to step into theirs. It’s not easy work, but for real culture change to happen, it’s unavoidable. The leader has to go first. But for those leaders with the maturity and courage to make this shift, the payoff in terms of team effectiveness and world impact is more than worth it.

If you’re interested in exploring any of this further with respect to your own organization’s culture and how you lead it, let me suggest these steps:

  1. Get a free copy of my ebook “Leadership That Changes the World.” It’s a quick read at only 15 pages, but provides a simple method for assessing where your organization is culturally, and how to lead them toward positive change. You can get a copy by signing up for my semi-monthly newsletter. Just click here.
  2. Drop me a line. I offer a free 45-min phone consultation with any leader interested in talking about this work. Sometimes these conversations lead to a new coaching relationship with you or your team; sometimes they don’t. Either way, I’m here to help. Just click here to set up a free consult.



Michael Warden

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