Written by Robin Klein
Executives sometimes become frustrated when their goals and efforts for an organizational culture change are met with rolled eyes and a lack of acceptance, enthusiasm, and trust. Yet, culture change doesn’t happen overnight. Organizational culture is created over time, and it will take an investment of time to change it.
I once worked with a client where the relationship between the leadership and their biggest union was, best put, broken. Lack of trust between the parties made the environment toxic. Employee engagement was low, and management responded to this lack of engagement with additional rules and performance tracking. Doing so sent the relationship in the wrong direction, and the parties dug deeper into their existing dislike for one another.
These damaged organizational relationships have no easy fix. Yet, one effective method of tackling this issue is to: keep, stop, and start.
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old” — Peter Drucker
For our client (including the union), finding the behaviors to “stop” was a simple task. Our initial advice: “stop” reading into the other party’s actions as attempts to hurt you. “Stop” using control tactics to punish one another. “Stop” assuming the other party is incapable of change. This level of honesty and commitment between them was necessary to reset the tone and provide a more open exchange of ideas. Both parties wanted the relationship to be different.
However, the most important part of the solution was what the organization needed to “keep.” Finding what to keep was much more nuanced. Yet, after a few focus groups and interviews, the answer was right in front of us: The Customer! Both parties were extremely passionate about the customer. Union employees had in-person contact with customers every day and loved making things right for people. Management felt the customer was key to the organization’s success and that earning their continued business was at the forefront of the company’s strategy. Both parties wanted to provide a great customer experience. When conversations turned to the importance of the customer and the changing environment, there was something to dialogue about. Being able to talk to one another in a transparent and collaborative way was a new skill we helped them build. In a way, each party held a piece of the puzzle, but neither had the puzzle box top. By using this metaphor when sharing and collaborating, the organization saw the big picture and how to make things better for the customer. It was only then that culture change began. Parties were motivated to focus on the customer and improve the relationship for the sake of the customer. This motivation became the key “start.”
Find what to “keep” by matching strategy to culture
How did simply aligning the goals of the two parties effectively change the culture? According to an HBR article, Culture Change that Sticks “Matching Strategy to Culture” is one effective method for culture change. Best put, “Culture trumps strategy every time”, no matter how brilliant the plan, so the two need to be in alignment.
Matching strategy to culture really resonated for this client, given that the customer was central to the company’s strategy. Through a series of working sessions, the organization brought union employees into strategy planning, including sharing customer experience data, future trends, and information on the competition. When the union workforce felt they were being treated with respect, communication lines naturally opened up. After a series of effective dialogues and idea-sharing, strategy updates became part of ongoing shift meetings for union employees.
Finding alignment helped motivate the two parties to work together to improve the culture. But wholesale change is hard, so it became important for the organization to choose its battles wisely. Instead of doing a massive overhaul, we focused on a few critical shifts:
Stop — looking for ways to bring others down. We reminded the parties to build bridges instead of walls. A group of cultural influencers most passionate about the change took on this mantra, which helped build respect and engage others in the change, making a big difference.
Keep — the focus on the shared beliefs. For our client, this meant prioritizing the customer and the external marketplace and remembering that both sides want the same thing for the customers.
Start — Ensuring active levels of open communication, idea sharing, and respect. Initially, leadership and the union saw trust as a bridge too far for their relationship. The union made it clear — “trust is earned.” Mutual respect became the goal for their ongoing relationship. As one part of the open dialogue, union and management employees shared openly about why they liked their jobs and what got in the way of their engagement. Through this, management decided to improve some discipline and tracking procedures while still ensuring accountability. Leadership improved on both sides. Conversations were now possible on just about anything, and sharing information was key to cementing the progress being made.
Improving relationships to improve culture
I appreciate the work done on Thriving Organizations by Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath. Their approach to positive practices aligns with the actions taken to help this client. Their research shows that sharing information, minimizing incivility, and providing open feedback are key to a thriving organization. I found the same in helping this client. These practical practices made a big difference in improving the client’s culture with their union.
In my experience, transforming culture is all about relationships. We can improve relationships through three easy steps. What behaviors are in the way of a great relationship? — stop it. What actions aren’t happening to build a better relationship? — start it. What is working well between groups that should be appreciated? — keep it. Building high-quality positive relationships take time. Building a collaborative keep, stop, start list and implementing it could give life to a more positive culture, less frustration, and even a better night’s sleep.
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