So, you read yesterday’s post, and maybe, just maybe, a red flag—or eight—jumped out at you, felt a little too familiar, or possibly even gave you the chills. And now, you’re beginning to worry because you’re seeing signs that your culture isn’t up to snuff everywhere—in your front office and your treatment area, with your suppliers and your patients. Well, set your worries aside. Of course, a less-than-stellar culture isn’t ideal, but there’s still hope—and time—to right the wrongs of your culture’s past. Here are four things you can do to fix what’s broken:

1. Go Back to the Basics

John Kotter, Chief Innovation Officer at Kotter International, believes the main reason why many discussions about culture don’t lead anywhere productive is quite simply that no one really understands what culture is, why it’s so important, how it’s formed, and how it changes. If you’re not totally confident of your understanding of any of these items, it’s time to go back to the basics.

For starters, Kotter defines culture as consisting of the “group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” Author Erika Andersen defines culture as “patterns of accepted behavior, and the beliefs and values that promote and reinforce them.” For our definition of culture—as well as some very important research supporting the importance of culture—check out our first blog of the month here. After reading all the different definitions, think about what culture means to you and create your own definition. With this as your foundation, you’ll be ready to tackle the questions of how it’s formed (hint: it starts with leaders) and how it changes (hint: this, too, starts with leaders).

According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s graduate business school and author of The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First, before you start implementing change, you must first decide why you want to change. ”The reason should be that companies with engaged workforces actually do better,” he says. “Companies with loyal customers outperform their competitors. And loyal customers come from having loyal employees, who want to provide a high level of service and creativity. When you understand that you really do achieve competitive advantage through people, the rest follows.”

2. Start Leading the Right Way

According to Kotter, the most ineffective way to change company culture is to “decide what the new culture should be,” create a “list of values,” and decree that this is the new culture. This type of cascading, top-to-bottom message does little to effect real change. Rather, culture changes when “a powerful person at the top—or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization—decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision,” and, most importantly, “starts acting differently and enlists others to act differently.” Kotter continues on to say, “If the new actions produce better results, if [those] results are communicated and celebrated...new norms will form and new shared values will grow.”

Start leading the right way by aligning your actions with the values you want your company culture to embody. “Every time you make a decision,” Pfeffer advises, “Ask yourself a very simple question: Is this decision consistent with the view that people are the most important differentiator in my organization? If the answer is yes, you are doing the right thing.” 

3. Make Behaviors “Easy, Rewarding, and Normal”

According to Andersen, “people will change their behavior only if they see the new behavior as easy, rewarding, and normal.”

  • Easy means that the person you’re asking to behave differently believes that, “I have the skills and knowledge to do this, and there are no organizational obstacles to me doing this—I won’t get into trouble, and nobody will get in my way.”
  • Rewarding means that the person you’re asking to behave differently feels that, “Doing this behavior will give me results (emotionally or practically) that are valuable to me.”
  • Normal means that the person you’re asking to behave differently feels that, “People like me act this way, and people I admire and want to emulate act this way.”

Once you have an idea as to what behaviors align with the company culture you wish to have, line them up against these definitions. Are they all easy, rewarding, and normal? If they are, you’re ready for #4 below. If they’re not, don’t throw away a certain behavior just yet. Instead, begin brainstorming ways you could change the organizational structure or implement new training to make the behavior work. Andersen gives this example: If you want your staff to be “more open to considering and acting on new ideas,” you may have to “teach them some skills,” like “listening, managing their negative self-task, or asking more curiosity-based questions.” Or, you might need to “remove organizational obstacles,” like negative consequences from managers, in order to make the behavior easier to execute. For more examples, you can read Andersen’s full article here.

4. Reinforce the New Culture

this article, Mary Jesse, CEO of Ivycorp, writes: “Nothing de-motivates hard-working team members faster than seeing someone get away with bad behavior—or worse, get rewarded for it.” So, once you set your culture, reinforce it by recognizing and appreciating the people who act in accordance with it and individually addressing the people who don’t.

Furthermore, this Forbes article offers the following advice:

  • Identify and publicize “heroes and heroines” who exemplify your new culture
  • Dole out on-the-spot rewards when you see someone doing something right
  • Communicate honestly to everyone within the organization about how things are going—good and bad
  • Focus on the positive impact of behavior changes

And, back to #2 above, there’s no better way to reinforce a new culture than to be a good role model. Greg Shove, founder of Social Chorus, has this to say: “Remember, culture needs to be written down and lived by the founders. Then the rest of your team needs to understand it and compensation needs to reinforce it. So define your culture, find people who want to live it with you, and then reward your superstars.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Still unsure if your culture is broken? Pfeffer says, “If you have any sensitivity—and many bad leaders don't—you can tell from the energy. How do you know the people at United Airlines are unhappy? They don't smile. How do you know they're having fun at Southwest? They smile. They laugh. There's positive energy. You can tell a lot about culture just by reading facial expressions. Are people scowling? Avoiding each other? Avoiding you?”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In other words, remaining consistent solely for the sake of being consistent—without taking new information into consideration—is not a good idea. So pay attention to the signs. There’s no shame in giving your culture the restart it so desperately needs, and the sooner the better.

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