Revealed: Why culture transformations fail

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There’s little doubt that workplace culture has become an increasingly important aspect of leadership within organisations. Culture is talked about a great deal and actions are taken in an attempt to make improvements to cultures. Why? Because culture impacts performance at an individual and organisational level.

Sadly however, most efforts to improve cultures fail.

Let’s get this clear here however. The fact that change initiatives fail to gain traction is usually NOT because leaders have bad intentions. The vast majority of leaders have good intentions and want their culture to constantly improve. The trouble is that most leaders are being pressured on multiple, often urgent fronts.

Based on our experience with organisations across the world, here are our three reasons why most culture change initiatives fail to gain any traction.

Reason 1 – Culture change is a ‘project’ rather than a ‘way of being’.

As soon as there is any attempt to assign culture change to ‘project ‘ status, it’s bound to fail. That’s because projects typically have project teams (who are the responsible individuals, and who are sometimes viewed as having sole responsibility for ‘the project’) and projects compete with what typically are already busy workloads.

There’s no doubt that there needs to be some project components to culture change – but if that’s it, it won’t work.

Culture needs to be seen by everyone (mostly leaders in the first instance) as a ‘way of being’ rather than a project to be accomplished.

Reason 2: Culture change is on a list of 37 so called ‘priorities’ 

Leaders have multiple priorities and various forces competing for attention to be put onto that ‘priority’ list.

What’s vitally important, yet most often overlooked, is the fact that staff deduce what’s most important to leaders and act accordingly.

So a critical question is this: What would your people say are your top three priorities – and does ‘culture’ rate as one of those?

If culture is not deduced as a top three priority, then efforts to change it won’t go far.

As an aside, we regularly ask leaders what they think their staff would identify as the leader’s top three priorities – and ‘culture’ or ‘people’ or ‘values’ seldom gets mentioned.

Reason 3: Culture change is seen as the sole responsibility of leaders

Our message to leaders is that you as a leader are primarily but not solely responsible for the culture.

This is an important distinction as too often, leaders take on too much responsibility for the culture.

This thinking allows staff to take what we believe is a ‘cop-out’ position: waiting for leaders to ‘do something’ to make the culture better. Staff must be helped to understand that they play a part in the culture and need to have shared ownership.

Addressing these three factors is of critical importance – yet few organisations work on these.

If you’d like to see what senior leaders at McLaren Automotive say about our work on transforming cultures, click here.