11 Insights from the Ultimate Culture Conference

This post was originally published by Switch & Shift on August 3, 2016. Click here to view the post on Switch & Shift.

Interest in the subject of culture continues to grow dramatically. It’s a hot topic, and for good reason. Research shows Constructive cultures lead to increased profitability, satisfaction, performance, and more. The Annual Ultimate Culture Conference gathers top thought leaders in the field of organizational culture and leadership to provide valuable insight into and discussion around this elusive concept for professionals passionate about shaping workplace culture.

We’ve gathered 11 key takeaways from the last conference to help you make decisions that have a positive impact on culture and business results.

It’s Critical to Understand Organizational Climate and Culture
Climate is the “what” and culture is the “how.” Culture evolves based on how members of an organization go about their work, good or bad. In other words, it’s ‘how we do things around here’ or, more specifically, the unwritten rules about how members are “expected” to interact.

Climate, on the other hand, comprises perceptions of what an organization does in terms of reward systems, hiring practices, leadership styles, etc. “More and more, leaders are learning the difference,” noted Mark Babbitt and Shawn Murphy of Switch & Shift. “They [leaders] know that climate can be immediately influenced by a leader’s style; it’s a “right now” thing. They understand that changing embedded culture is a long-term initiative, and that it can take years to see a difference.”

Larry Senn, Chairman and Founder of international culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, further emphasized this distinction between culture and climate as he shared the reality that “far, far too many culture initiatives fail or mess around with climate or engagement and really don’t change the culture.”

The Members of an Organization Should be Commonly Connected by Purpose
Larry Senn shared his culture epiphany. He explained his experience in the 1960s with a “guy named Sam” at Walmart, where it felt like they could make anything happen because they were commonly connected by purpose. He compared this to his experience at another now-defunct firm in the same industry, where it felt like “going to the morgue.” The only purpose they had was to “maintain the status quo.” He felt “this company [Walmart] is going to take over the world, and this [now-defunct] one is going to die.”

He wanted to understand this difference, and it led to over 40 years of experience in the culture field. Larry shared, “when organizations can align their purpose and strategy with their processes and systems that support that, and the behaviors needed to drive it,” they will be successful.

Put the Culture Principles Next to a Good Theory of Change
Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management and regarded as one of the most influential authorities on organizational culture, focused on change in his keynote. He stressed the importance of having a good theory of organizational change to go along with the more abstract concept of culture.

“The bottom line is, take culture seriously at these many levels, and use the word less,” said Schein. “Use words like ‘I want to change behavior,’ ‘I want to change some kind of a value,’ ‘I want to change the way this organization functions’—get concrete.”

Culture principles from Edgar Schein, Larry Senn, Rob Cooke and other experts are not widely understood and must be coupled with a good theory of change to make a meaningful impact.

Constructive Cultural Styles Are Valued Throughout the World
Regardless of geographical location, “The one unifying principle across the world is that people agree that the constructive styles are functional,” said Human Synergistics CEO Robert Cooke. Constructive cultures promote effectiveness and performance across levels and, in contrast to defensive cultures, are valued by people in every society Human Synergistics has studied.

“One thing that people all over the world agree on: If you’re dealing with a global organization, you want to focus on the Constructive styles” to get the change process started.

Enable Members to Connect to the Culture with Purpose
Hampton does things differently to ensure 60,000 team members working in 2,100 locations in 18 countries feel connected to its values. The organization harnesses the individuality of its team members to create a culture that inspires and motivates.

“Want your people to feel connected to the brand? Ask them for their thoughts! Embrace their strengths and the values they believe in!” suggested Rich Berens of Root Learning and Hampton’s Karl Thomas. “Hampton’s current brand values of Friendly, Authentic, Caring and Thoughtful were identified through employee focus groups.”

Communication Is Critical for an Organization to Excel
Culture is all about the people, and when members are unable to speak honestly with one another or don’t feel heard, the entire organization suffers. “It’s amazing what happens when people make themselves feel safe in a circle and open feedback is encouraged,” said The Culture Group Founder Jeanne Malnati. “People learn to care about each other on a whole other level, and it creates a place where you feel trusted and respected.” Putting the focus on communication enabled her to transform Lou Malnati’s Pizza into an organization named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the top workplaces in Chicago.

Leaders Make the Difference in Culture Change Success
Many organizations have a set of values posted on the wall, but if the leaders don’t live those values, they’re nothing more than wall décor. “If leadership does X, the people will do X,” said Linda Sharkey, host of VoiceAmerica’s i Lead—The Leadership Connection. Along with York Risk Services Chief HR Officer, Carol Montgomery, Linda used the Organizational Culture Inventory® to successfully blend two very different cultures at York following a major acquisition. “If a leader does Y, people will do Y. Leaders need to be extremely conscious of what they’re doing every single day.”

Consider Members’ Capacity for Change Before Initiating Culture Change
Every person has a capacity for change, and that capacity is taken up by changes, large or small, in both their personal and professional lives. “Many leaders have no comprehension of the amount of change that’s absorbing the capacity of their people,” said Donna Brighton, President and Founder of Brighton Leadership Group.

“If your people are so overwhelmed with other changes going on in the organization that they don’t have capacity, the culture change will fail.” Donna demonstrated this point about capacity by filling a glass with water to the point where it just spilled onto the stage.

Changing a Mature Organization, While Daunting, Can Be Rewarding
Tom Walter, Chief Culture Officer at Tasty Catering, led the company’s change from an ingrained command-and-control culture to a Constructive culture. In the process, the company has been honored by the American Psychological Association as a Psychologically Healthy Workplace, in addition to receiving many awards for being a ‘best place to work.’

“The expected outcome was a better organizational climate, such as increased cooperation, better problem solving, and superior customer service,” said Tom. “The unexpected outcome was incredibly high employee engagement, extremely low turnover, and amazingly high performance.”

An Organization’s Culture Can Make the Difference Between Life and Death
“The underlying culture of a business is a significant causal factor in employee safety,” according to Martin Marquardt. His firm, Ephektiv, focuses on safety culture and the personal safety of employees in nuclear power plants and utility companies.

The differentiating factor in the safe operation of nuclear power plants: A sincere caring, constructive culture. Marquardt found work crews that had been together over 15 years without safety-related incidents “cared for each other so much that they would not let each other get hurt, and they created a safe haven for their members to perform their best work.”

Culture Trumps Talent Any Day of the Week
As Dr. Jason Carthen, CEO of Jason Carthen Enterprises, noted, even the most talented individuals cannot overcome a toxic culture: “If the leader does not firmly establish a constructive culture of openness, positive communication, and healthy conflict in the organization, talent will go elsewhere or be rendered ineffective.” The use of criticism and other types of punishment is one of the easiest ways to destroy the spirit of those on the receiving end—and to create a negative culture for everyone on the team.

Jason’s presentation sparked discussion around the massive waste that exists in many hiring, training, and development initiatives that result in sending talented individuals into a dysfunctional culture where they are unable to translate their knowledge and gifts into meaningful action. Edgar Schein said in a CultureUniversity.com interview that “90% of our behavior is driven by cultural rules.” It shouldn’t be a big surprise that culture trumps talent, especially since most of us have experienced this to some degree in the organizations we support.

These 11 insights barely scratch the surface of the knowledge shared at the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. Culture can be a complex topic. It’s often difficult for leaders to integrate best practices as part of an effective approach to solve business problems, improve performance, and effectively evolve or shift their culture.

The 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco will include a focus on important culture-related challenges, including culture across generations, diversity and inclusion, and technology, so the link between some of the top business challenges and potential solutions is clear.

The culture field is evolving at a fast rate. It’s critical for experts to collaborate on bringing visibility to the research, facts, and, fundamentals of how culture really works, or superficial and oversimplified culture content will continue to dominate the popular press and the work undertaken by many organizations.

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