I recently joined the LinkedIn group “HR – Organization Development & Training.” Eli Sopow, Special Advisor, Change Management at Royal Canadian Mounted Police, posted the question “can changing behavior change your organization culture?” It was a question at the heart of so much of The CLEMMER Group’s consulting and training work of the last years so I had to jump in.

I’ve studied and written quite a lot about culture change since we started working with Zenger Miller and Tom Peters on a “Toward Excellence” executive implementation program back in 1983. Since then I’ve facilitated and guided hundreds of management teams on variations of this topic. I’ve come to very firmly believe that the key variable in successful or unsuccessful culture change is the management team leading it. An organization’s behavior (and values) ripple out from the management team. As the old adage reminds us, “If we keep doing what we’ve always done we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got.” You can read an article I wrote on this for The Globe & Mail a few years ago at https://www.clemmergroup.com/culture-change-starts-with-the-management-team.php.

As the lively debate/discussion carried on, I recounted a recent lunch with the police chief of a large police service on the challenges of shifting an entrenched culture. He is a younger and more open/transparent leader than most chiefs. We talked about how especially difficult it is to change behavior in a paramilitary organization that’s steeped in command and control. He’s having trouble getting his senior managers to understand the critical balance of bossing and leading and when is the right time for either one. His organization epitomizes the truism that the higher a manager rises the less he or she has to deal with people who disagree with him or her.

My experience is that the most successful culture change comes either from a strong CEO like that police chief who is modeling and driving leadership behavior change and/or the senior team who is willing to look in the mirror to see how their behavior impacts the culture. A simple example is looking at a culture of departmentalism, silos, and turf protection. The roots can be traced to a management team that doesn’t manage conflict well (so it usually goes underground), operates independently with only vertical accountability, and may take snipes and potshots at each (often wrapped in “humor”) in meetings or to their direct reports.

The discussion turned to whether it’s possible for a department or divisional unit to change their culture despite the bigger organization. We’ve seen examples of successful culture change starting with a unit management team (division, department, or branch) and then spreading out from there. It takes strong and determined leadership and a united team to create “an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity – or worse.” My only book of fiction (Moose on the Table ) was a story showing a middle manager doing exactly that despite a bully boss.

A simple model that has helped set a strong foundation is getting the management to embrace and apply the idea that they have three fundamental choices in reshaping their team/unit culture. They can lead, follow, or wallow (go to https://www.clemmergroup.com/chapter-three-wallow-follow-lead.php for more.) Once the team firmly agrees they want to live in the leader zone they begin a change process that starts with identifying those behaviors, systems/processes, training, performance management, etc., that they directly control, can influence in the bigger organization, and have no control over (so they need to let go of the negative energy and “awfulizing” uncontrollables like political interference, the economy, demographics, etc.) In a number of cases the renewed unit has created such a successful forward surge in their performance and “the way we do things around here” that other units have joined the process and the bigger organization has gotten on board as well.

We have an extensive collection of articles and excerpts – including our SVP, Scott Schweyer’s excellent five part series – on culture change at https://www.clemmergroup.com/culture-change.php.

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