Corporate culture is one of the most important elements to any organization’s success and prosperity. Inc. has an excellent definition of corporate culture:
“the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to labor, customers, investors, and the greater community. As such, it is an essential component in any business’s ultimate success or failure.”
A valuable exercise is to stop and think about what behaviors you experience in your organization. In so doing, you must face the fact that the behaviors—good or bad—exist because the corporate culture permits them to exist. That is a wonderful situation if the behaviors are good. It is a nightmare if the behaviors are bad.
We are each going to embrace and affirm a good corporate culture or we are each going to embrace and affirm a bad corporate culture. That is a pretty clear choice in my mind. Let’s embrace and affirm good corporate cultures wherever they may be found. When we come upon bad corporate cultures, let’s challenge them and aim to change them. Ultimately, this is a professional, ethical imperative.
Now, the question arises, how do we change the corporate culture? And before you even try to answer that question, first you must ask the question, can the corporate culture be changed? Because the “how” makes no sense without the “can.” Finally, you must assess your role in changing the corporate culture. This leads us to five fundamental questions to ask about corporate culture change:
- How big is the organization?
- How large is the inertia?
- Who are the influencers?
- What can you do?
- Should you stay or leave?
Let’s consider these questions one by one.
How Big Is The Organization?
Although not formulaic, you absolutely must understand the size of an organization when you are attempting to change its corporate culture. Your knowledge of the organization’s size will drive all aspects of your strategy and process for corporate culture change.
The kinds of challenges a multibillion-dollar corporation presents will not be identical to the kinds of challenges a 20-employee small business presents. The larger the organization, the higher the tendency for the current corporate culture to be solidified, regardless of how good or bad it is. The larger the organization, the more important it becomes for the changes to spring from the top down. Without an executive-level commitment and execution, the changes simply will not catch fire at the middle-management level and down to the bench level.
If the organization is small- to medium-sized, that does not mean that these dynamics are absent, but simply that their speed and style may vary. Your approach will still need to be tailored to connect more effectively with people at various levels. The task is not necessarily any easier. In fact, it could be harder because the smaller the organization is, the higher the possibility for one stubborn individual to create roadblocks to the entire process.
Size never tells the whole story. However, it does remain a significant factor in your strategy and process. Everything about your strategy and process will need to be adjusted to the size-specific assets, limitations, and unique opportunities of that organization.
How Large Is The Inertia?
Inertia is a physics concept that refers to the tendency of an object that is in motion to remain in motion and the tendency of an object that is not in motion to remain at rest. Although it is a physics concept, it has many human illustrations. We all experience those inertia moments at various times and we see them in other people.
What is true for the individual is true for the corporate culture because the corporate culture by definition is the composite of all the individuals. When you want to change the corporate culture, knowing the magnitude of the inertia is crucial. You might find many dynamics in motion that need to be stopped. You might find certain aspects of the corporate culture that are at rest that need to begin moving. Your prospects for success and how you design your strategy and process are all dependent on the size of that inertia.
I remember once moving a very large piece of medical equipment on wheels. It took much more of my strength than I first realized to get it rolling. Once I got it rolling, I nearly took out a wall. It had much more inertia than I initially realized. The good news about inertia is that once you understand it, you will know where to put your resources. You will be putting your resources where they will be most effective and where genuine needs exist. Without this inertial knowledge, you would be nothing more than a feather in a tornado. With this inertial knowledge, you will be a funneling force capable of redirecting energy, objects, and people.
Of course, the inertia of physics is rooted in unbending formulas and equations of the universe. Corporate culture inertia is rooted in people’s minds and hearts where formulas and equations do not always work. However, it is the minds and hearts of people that will move a mountain or create a new one.
Inertia never tells the whole story. Nevertheless, once you understand its size and configuration, then you can apply your energies where they will be most effective. Only then will you have an opportunity to change the corporate culture.
Who Are The Influencers?
Let’s consider the influencers. Do you know who they are? And lest you answer too quickly, remember that a job title does not automatically equal influence.
In any organization, it is those who have influence that are the genuine leaders. At its core, leadership is influence. Sometimes that comes with an impressive job title and sometimes it does not. Once you have identified the authentic leadership, then you will know who the influencers are.
Identifying the influencers is key to executing corporate culture change. When you know who the influencers are and you understand how they think, what their goals are, their integrity, and their character, then you can deduce the options for corporate culture change. The influencers will drive that change. Knowing who they are tells you much about what that change might look like.
As with all these variables, knowing who the influencers are never tells the whole story. Nevertheless, once you understand the influencers, you at least have a much better idea of what the future may hold. In knowing that, you can commit to the future with an informed confidence and excitement about that corporate culture change.
What Can You Do?
Let’s consider what might be the most important question, what can you do? You have a voice. You are empowered. You bring a perspective. Never underestimate where your volition might take you and the organization.
Understanding what you can do frees and empowers you to do it. The specifics of exactly what you can do will vary with the situation. You can offer input. You can affirm the positive. You can share your opinions. You can set the example. You can meet with a key influencer. You can challenge the status quo. What you cannot do is dodge the professional, ethical imperative to embrace a positive corporate culture and to change a negative one. You do not have that selfish luxury. The professional, ethical imperative does not permit such inaction.
Although it is easy to focus on what other people could do or should do, the professional, ethical imperative demands that you take other people out of the spotlight and place the spotlight on you. You cannot control what someone else will do. You can only control what you will do. Understanding what you can do is perhaps the most important step in corporate culture change.
Should You Stay Or Leave?
Let’s consider that last question, should you stay or leave? The question is intensely personal and corporate culture change is never easy. You will have a lot to analyze. Nevertheless, your answers to all the prior questions will provide the resources you need to make a good—albeit not easy—decision. By understanding the size and inertia of the organization, by identifying the influencers, and by discerning your ability to contribute, you will have a rich resource reservoir to create your solution.
This is all you need with just one exception. The single item that trumps everything else is your integrity. Although the previously described analyses are necessary, you must let your integrity be your final arbiter on whether you stay or leave.
In some cases, the quality of the people, the timing, the need, the opportunities, and a sense of calling will overwhelmingly affirm your decision to stay with your integrity intact. You are part of the glorious solution. In other cases, certain aspects of your findings will clearly confirm that for your integrity’s sake, you must leave. When a situation will compromise your integrity, you have two choices:
- Leave the situation and thereby preserve your integrity.
- Stay in the situation and thereby destroy your integrity.
Remember, leaving an organization is not the worst thing that can happen in your life. However, preserving your integrity is one of the best things that can happen in your life. The challenges of corporate culture change will always be there, and not every hill is a hill worth dying on. In some cases, your best choice is the choice to live to fight again another day.
Corporate culture change is a complex, challenging, stressful, and complicated task to say the least. It will stretch you in unimaginable ways. This multilayered process demands that you continuously bring your best self to the task. By exploring these five fundamental questions, you will have the assurance that you are engaging the corporate culture challenges in the best possible manner for the best possible outcome.