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A guide to changing workplace culture

Real change starts with people. Hire the right ones, fire the bad ones, and encourage everyone from the secretary to the CEO to work for big picture goals. 


As someone in a position of leadership, it’s up to you to effectively facilitate a workplace culture that allows each employee to flourish.

One of the more difficult challenges facing the CEO, owner or manager of a failing company is changing the culture of the workplace.

People get stuck in their ways and often respond harshly to sudden calls for change. However, this resistance to change may be what has led the company astray in the first place. As someone in a position of leadership, it’s up to you to effectively facilitate sustainable change that allows each employee to flourish and succeed.

The Major Challenge

The idea of changing workplace culture may sound simple to someone who’s never been faced with the task before. But as anyone with experience knows, it’s a massive challenge.

In a 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review, authors Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley referenced a case study involving the health insurance giant Aetna and the struggles it endured throughout the early 2000s. Losing roughly USD1 million a day, company executives realised they had a major problem on their hands — and it started with poor workplace culture. Understanding this, they decided it was time to make some very fundamental changes.

What they didn’t realise was that you can’t trade in an existing culture like it’s a used car.

“Unfortunately, it can feel like a millstone when a company is trying to push through a significant change — a merger, for instance, or a turnaround,” the Harvard Business Review article reads. “Cultural inclinations are well entrenched, for good or bad. But it’s possible to draw on the positive aspects of culture, turning them to your advantage and offset some of the negative aspects as you go. This approach makes change far easier to implement.”

Ultimately, Aetna was able to shift the corporate culture and save face, but it took lots of time and patience. While your business may not be losing millions of dollars per month, it can sure feel like it at times.

Whether it’s widespread negativity, an overt disregard for company rules, or a lack of effort from employees, there are certain negative aspects of workplace culture that can destroy a business from the inside out. It’s your job to assess the problem, implement strategies that address the problem, and position your organisation for a recovery.

5 Tips for Creating Sustainable Change

Understanding that each business, culture, and person is unique in their own rights, here are a few tips for creating sustainable change in the workplace:

1. Consider the Individual

While your goal is to change the culture of an entire business or entity, you have to narrow your focus to a much more granular level. It’s important to start with the individuals in the company and move from there. After all, if the people within an organization don’t change, the company itself can never change.

“The greatest challenge from a coaching perspective is the fact that change is quite easy, but sustainable change is quite hard,” says Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, CEO of executive coaching firm AIIR Consulting.

He writes. “Anyone who has tried to eliminate a bad habit or modify an unwanted behavior is aware of this truth.”

It’s important to understand this from the start. If you know that change occurs on an individual basis, and that sustaining that change is the key to long-term success, you’ll be able to develop a much better strategy.

2. Make the Right Hiring/Firing Decisions

The biggest key to changing culture is eliminating toxic employees and infusing the business with the right talent. Unfortunately, this is also the hardest thing to do. Your first step is to sit down with existing employees and determine who has to be fired. Red flags that someone isn’t right for your new culture include laziness, unwillingness to change, failure to own up to mistakes, and an inability to accept constructive criticism.

However, if you are going to let employees go, you have to be sure that you can find better replacements that align with your corporate values.

3. Set Short-Term Goals

There’s something to be said about patiently waiting for long-term change to unfold, but you have to implement short-term goals if you want to see steady, consistent change. Gather your leadership team and develop a list of specific, tangible changes you want to see in the workplace culture. Examples include showing up on time, having lower-level employees seek out more responsibilities, fostering creativity.

Then you can begin to develop specific timetables for attacking these goals. Instead of trying to juggle multiple changes at once, take them one at a time. .

4. Give Employees a Chance to be Heard

Regardless of how well you think you know your employees, you can’t really know what they are thinking about or how they’re feeling without asking. Sit down and discuss the culture of the workplace with each individual in the organization. Not only does this listening exercise show employees that you care about them, but it also gives you valuable insights into what’s happening on the ground level.

5. Follow Through with Promises (Good and Bad)

Creating sustainable behavioral change means you’ll have to set boundaries and make promises. Whether it’s negative or positive reinforcement, you must be prepared to follow through with the promises you make.

Using these five tips, you can change your workplace culture. Just remember to focus on the individual, not the process. Real change starts with people.


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