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Why The Senior Management Team Can't Impose Culture

Culture pervades through absolutely everything that's done on a day-to-day basis within an organisation, regardless of its size. From the behaviour of senior leaders in large global organisations to the way that a sports team trains for a game at the weekend. It dictates where people sit, how meetings are run, how decisions are made, how projects are delivered and how safe people feel in doing their job.

Why The Senior Management Team Can’t Impose CultureCulture is the thing that gets people out of bed for work in the morning and is often the last thing people think of before they go to bed at night.
When the culture is vibrant it's something you want to be part of, regardless of whether you work in it or not. It's infectious, intoxicating and electric. You see the smile on people's faces, hear their conversations or see the results that they achieve. You want it for yourself and to be part of something special.
Stagnant cultures are similarly noticeable. There's little interaction between people, there's no challenge, it feels unsafe and there is little noise, bar that of office equipment. It feels cold, lost and you want to get away from there as soon as possible.

Culture belongs to everyone

A mistake senior managers often make is that they think they own the culture and as such can define it as they see fit and impose it onto the staff. They can’t. Culture is not something that is 'owned' by anyone because everyone gets a say in culture.
Regardless of where a person sits on an a structure chart, their length of service, their performance or their mindset, they all influence the culture. Culture is the totality of everyone's behaviours, stories, beliefs, traditions, skills and habits.

A People and Culture department may be the custodian of culture, but they don't get to pin a tail on it and say that it's theirs.

It’s a double-edged sword for senior managers as they don’t own it and yet, through their actions (or inactions) they have the power to destroy it.

This feels counter-intuitive for most senior managers as for years command and control structures have been imposed on staff with little recourse. However, times have changed and most senior managers are yet to catch up.

Transformation is about people, not technology

In their paper Building a Future Focused Culture, Deloitte found that workplace culture is the number one priority for senior managers and yet only 19% said that they had the right culture for success.

Digital transformation projects are the latest investments that senior managers are making to ensure their businesses stay relevant and yet most forget that the transformation part refers to culture. Implementing new technologies or rolling out ‘new ways of working’ to support them may not actually change anything.

It’s true to say that they’ll provide those within an organisation with greater technical knowledge, but without the staff defining what the culture needs to become in order to utilise these tools, then transformation will likely never occur.

Of course, investing time and money to empower the staff to co-create something that has purpose and that they feel connected to isn’t traditionally something that senior managers have invested in. Why ask the staff to do the definition work themselves when they can simply roll out the latest training course and hope for change?

And yet, it’s only when this happens, that senior managers send the message that things are going to be different. A culture will never evolve if it keeps doing the same things that it always has.

Evolution requires a different approach

And this is where senior managers can add the most value.

They understand that cultural evolution requires a different level of energy and a different approach. They actively support and role model the behaviours required to help its employees move from one state to another.

So whilst senior managers can’t impose culture, they can ensure that staff have got the skills, time and resources to be able to define it themselves and then hold each other to what they’ve agreed.

Author Credits

Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work has seen him travel all over the world to help organisations transform the way they get things done. For more information about how Colin can help your team, visit www.culturefix.xyz

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