For Culture Success, Organizations Must Focus on the Big 3

For Culture Success, Organizations Must Focus on the Big 3

According to Josh Bersin, demographic upheaval coupled with digital technology has greatly contributed to a rapid increase in the rate of change. This accelerated rate is, in turn, leading to new social contracts and business considerations. Bersin is responsible for long-term strategy at Bersin by Deloitte and is frequently published in and Chief Learning Officer magazine. He cites an MIT study revealing that 90% of CEOs said their company is experiencing disruption. Ninety percent! Given these turbulent times, the conversation about culture is more relevant than ever.

Culture enables or disables an organization’s ability to achieve strategic objectives. Culture drives behavioral standards and expectations. Culture is manifested in the human dynamics displayed within the way work is accomplished or in some cases, not accomplished. Bersin referenced an Oxford study revealing that 47% of jobs are going away in the next 20 years. The jobs that remain or are created, is widely expected to be those requiring human interactions. Bersin concluded, “We cannot deliver for customers unless we take care of our people.”

I had the privilege of hearing Bersin and other notable experts speak at the 2016 Annual Ultimate Culture Conference organized by Human Synergistics. Bersin shared research and insights that helped us see the increasing significance of understanding the connections between human interactions and workplace culture. This was further emphasized by Edgar Schein when he explained that, “you can’t produce change without relationships.”

Consequently, organizations seeking to succeed in turbulent times must focus on how their culture enables or disables their ability to achieve strategic objectives. To do this efficiently, organizations must think about the “Big 3.”

  1. Understand the enablers
    Often, leaders, especially those with greater change agility are tempted to charge into changing organizational elements without first considering what cultural enablers might exist. Cultural enablers are those foundational beliefs and expectations that serve as the fence around the playground. They enable and empower employees to know exactly where the boundaries of exploration exist. For example, enablers could include expectations on ethics, innovation, empowerment, or communication oriented behaviors. Additionally, enablers include environmental factors that employees link to their ability to excel. This could be a recreational area or other space that allows for a “brain break.” Some contemporary organizations have discovered that “brain break” areas enable higher engagement levels as well as greater innovation and efficiency. This same concept might have very little value in the context of another organizational cultural. However, removing it from a context where it is perceived as an enabler will have a definitive impact, even if temporary, on the psychological contract that some employees perceive they have with the organization. Each organization needs to understand their own core cultural enablers. In the same way, new leaders must understand what the enablers are for the sub-culture of the team they just joined before implementing any sweeping changes.
  2. Name it and claim it
    Be clear about expectations. Be specific about the behaviors necessary to reach your end-state. To achieve strategic objectives, an organization needs to be concerned about what will make them succeed as well as what might make their competitors succeed. Is your competitor focusing on developing elements within their culture that you are refusing to acknowledge as necessary? Companies who are at the top of their industry are most susceptible to not recognizing this vulnerability. Organizations must be clear on identifying behavioral elements that will reinforce the development of the type of relationships necessary for success. Especially given that relationships may become one of the top differentiators in the near future as technology reduces other non-interactive jobs.

    “…one of the reasons we don’t get anywhere is because we stay at Level One in the relationship.”
    -Ed Schein

    Leaders in the organization must “claim” these behaviors by being the first to consistently demonstrate them. Difficult decisions must be made for those leaders who refuse to adapt. At the heart of any culture lies expectations and beliefs often then manifested in behaviors. Schein, one of the foremost experts on culture, discusses relationships and the link to culture-change when sharing that we have two levels or relationships in the workplace. Level One is transactional and Level Two is personal. In discussing why culture change may fail, Schein concludes by saying, “one of the reasons we don’t get anywhere is because we stay at Level One in the relationship.” Leaders must model the desired behaviors while recognizing the need to acknowledge and validate the power of relationships to impact business results. In addition, optimal distinctiveness theory helps us to understand that when times are uncertain, people may more likely look to the group to determine how to behave. Leaders have great authority to influence the adoption and sustainment of the desired behaviors.

  3. Plan it, look for it and celebrate it
    Finally, the third phase of the triad is to be deliberate about taking time to plan. So often leaders are thrust into managing a changing situation while still maintaining 100% of their already over-booked schedule. In the end, these leaders spend more time managing negative consequences than they would have if the appropriate amount of time had been committed upfront to pause and plan. In referencing the complexity of culture-change, Schein declares, “organizational culture is a bottomless pit of questions and problems.” Leaders who treat the need for a culture change as a “simple add-on” to the other things they need to do, will have missed the point that your culture is the reason you will succeed or fail. Depending on the magnitude of the shift in culture, setting aside dedicated time to process, explore, and decide will be in order.Often this is facilitated more efficiently by a third-party subject matter expert. Once decided and articulated, determine what the specific early indicators are going to be. Establish how you will know if the process is working and then diligently look for these indicators of early success. Their absence will be an early warning signal of the need to step back and re-evaluate.When you do see evidence of adopted behaviors, language, and attitudes, start celebrating! Someone once said, “If you see the behaviors you want, pour champagne on it.” While both the legal and Human Resources departments may prefer that you use a different method other than champagne, the premise remains essential—celebrate early and celebrate often.

Bersin said that we must take care of our people, and Schein said that relationships matter. Research continues to reinforce the principle that talent is, and will be, a key differentiator for businesses in the United States through the immediate future. People are significantly impacted by the culture in which they are asked to perform. Achieving your strategic objective is dependent on whether or not your culture is the enabling element.

Is your workplace culture set-up to enable and empower the best performance from its employees? I welcome your thoughts and comments on social media.

About the Author

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John Edwards

John F. Edwards is a motivational speaker, author, and talent development expert who works with organizations to help them get to where they want to go. You can follow him on twitter @Edwards_Group or visit his blog at