Culture Change that Sticks
Who is responsible for the organizational culture?
I have asked this question many times, and answers vary. However, what I usually hear back is a variation of it is either the leadership team’s responsibility, or it is everyone’s responsibility. Both answers are true but incomplete.
The problem is that the leadership team cannot change the culture on their own. The organization is a complex eco-system with many interdependent parts—one team made up of many small team units. It is common for each of these small team units to have its own unique culture. In a complex organization, senior leaders simply do not have enough day-to-day contact with everyone in the organization. Real culture change works from the inside out and is relational. It takes many people pushing on the flywheel and leading by example to gain traction and sustain culture change.
Likewise, to say everyone is responsible falls short as well. A foundational principle for culture change is that each team member, from the most recent new hire to the most senior leader, is 100% Responsible for their own engagement and their personal contribution to the culture. However, stopping at “we are all responsible” is fuzzy—what is everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility. Without specific, named responsibilities, it is too easy for people to hide behind the fact that peers are not living up to the values of the organization either. True accountability will fall short.
What is everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility.
So, what is missing? I have asked that question in a variety of settings with people at all levels in the organization, and rarely does anyone acknowledge the unique role of middle managers and frontline supervisors. This lack of acknowledgement reveals a gap in understanding of how to systematically change the culture. As obvious as this may be, too many organizations are unclear on this point, leading to fuzzy expectations around the role small unit leaders play in culture change.
For organizations where culture change has stalled, our experience is it is almost always the case that expectations for the small unit leader are unclear.
Think of the small unit leadership framework as the third leg of a three-legged stool. If one leg is missing or even wobbly, then the stool will fall. Remember, the organizational culture is just the sum of the parts—a team of teams. Therefore, to end up with a common culture across a complex organization, you must change the culture of each of the small team units. Since small unit leaders have the greatest amount of interaction with most team members in any organization, ownership for culture and engagement must be driven down to the lowest common denominator—the small unit leader.
A systematic approach to successful culture change assigns responsibilities as follows:
Senior leader responsibility—cast the vision for the culture, communicate and champion the vision, model the way, steward the process, and support and equip team members along the way
Individual responsibility—each member of the team, from the newest hire to the most senior leader, is responsible for their personal contribution to the culture—this includes their own engagement and being an advocate for the culture
Small unit leader responsibility—each small unit leader is responsible for the engagement and culture of their small team unit—this includes every person in their downline, both direct and indirect reports
This has always been implied in our teaching and is embedded in the Team Trek Culture Change Roadmap. However, the small unit leadership framework makes these responsibilities explicit. When combined with the Five Capacities of Exceptional Leaders model, this framework elevates the small unit leader and creates clarity about how to lead for engagement.
This combination—a clear vision for the culture plus clearly defined individual and leader responsibilities—enables accountability and is the secret to getting the flywheel moving. Once the flywheel is moving, momentum picks up as the core is expanded—culture champions join in the effort and organic growth takes over as everyone gets a taste of success. This is how an organizational culture is transformed and sustained.
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