‍Implementing cultural change: How do you know you’re making the right difference?

Ben Watson, co-owner and director of employee engagement agency Blue Goose, sets out the best way to build lasting change
Ben Watson
A strategy meeting

How many times have you witnessed the introduction of a new cultural strategy in an organisation, with promises of transformative outcomes, only to wonder what became of it a few months or even years later?

There are all kinds of reasons why initiatives don’t gain hoped-for traction – and in understanding those reasons it can become easier to develop more effective systems. The usual culprits include unclear evidence and objectives, a lack of alignment with overall company values, insufficient buy-in and feedback from managers and team members, a loss of momentum, resistance, and unclear results.

For objectives to be understood by all parties it helps if they link to the overall purpose of the organisation, contain a clear action, a definable success metric where possible, and a window of execution. And by embedding objectives into business-as-usual (BAU) communications and culture, people will learn and change through memory and experience over time.

It’s crucial not to fall into the trap of expecting results to happen overnight, however – it can take years for real change to become thoroughly rooted. Culture change is a long-term investment and many, many initiatives fail because people underestimate how long it can take.

Where do you start?

There are myriad reasons why an organisation might wish to implement systemic change. Perhaps the management style is hierarchical or a little old-fashioned, which is proving a hindrance to new talent acquisition or retention. Maybe there’s a problem with microaggression which has seen a hike in internal complaints. It could be that issues around diversity, equality and inclusion or cyber security need to be addressed. Perhaps a company has undergone significant growth and changes in leadership, or there have been shifts in regulatory mandates.

Gathering evidence of a specific issue beyond the anecdotal and thinking about the culture you want to develop are good places to start. Use the data you already have to find existing patterns – this will help to set benchmarks. Digital analytics on existing communications, HR and exit data, employee-engagement surveys and social-media output can provide significant intelligence and be a good starting point for conversations – with employees and leaders alike.

Because although cultural change needs management buy-in, it can’t really be delivered solely via a top-down mandate – everyone from the shop floor to the boardroom needs to take full ownership if any initiative is going to work. By imbuing BAU comms, training and events with new storytelling that encourages a shift in cultural perception, it is possible to harness a desire – and sense of responsibility – for change. And framing that story within the organisation’s purpose gives the whole process greater meaning.

Measure how initiatives are being received

It’s surprising how many companies miss opportunities to find out how their team members feel (an email circular with a cyber-security training video – and no request for feedback, for example).

Blue Goose is currently working with the UK Police on a positive-action programme that has been designed to address recruitment diversity and inclusion. Before team members watch a film, we ask them what they think of positive-action initiatives, and then we pose the same question afterwards. From the responses we can ascertain whether there has been a shift – no matter how small – in cultural reasoning. It also encourages a move away from tick-box thinking (it’s not only important that a film has been watched, but it also needs to land).

That’s an important step, because anyone engaged in cultural change should identify and address the underlying issues and responses so they can correct their course. This can be achieved by fostering an environment of accountability, from managers to individual employees; by discussing with teams the issues that matter to them most; by asking for and responding to feedback and then instituting better practices; and by continually reassessing the pervading culture. It’s an approach that helps cope with resistance to change, too, as people feel heard and understood. Successful culture change always relies on including employees in the transition and getting their feedback.

Long and short term vision

Creating long and short feedback loops can prevent initiatives falling off the radar. Those driving a project shouldn’t wait for annual surveys to find out how something is landing – rather seek fast-response qualitative feedback from the people in the organisation via focus groups, surveys, even social conversations. Tapping into informal communities and networks can prove invaluable, too, as they often provide an opportunity to gauge true sentiment – as well as being a rich source of advocates.

Ready to face the future?

Strong culture is a major organisational advantage, so it’s worth initiating change where it’s needed – even when it seems ambiguous and hard to navigate. How well teams work together can determine success, increasing engagement and reducing turnover.

Attitudes to workplace culture are changing – new demands, shifts in employee-employer power balance, company values and ethics, agile working – so change is happening whether organisations like it or not.

But culture is pretty amorphous, which is why companies so often trade in clichés (collaborative, innovative, customer-focused, entrepreneurial, results-oriented, transparent). Unfiltered feedback (employee and data), a genuine time commitment and working in tandem with organisational values will help get people closer to a properly rooted and functional culture.

Written by
April 12, 2023