How to Change Workplace Culture

There are many ways to tackle changing your workplace culture. Do it well and you’ll create a thriving business that attracts the best employees. Do it badly, and you could end up in court.

How can you shift your workplace culture? In this post, I’ll explore the pros and cons of different approaches to this problem. These include recruiting new people, tasking a manager with changing the culture of their team, or taking a more holistic approach.

Recruitment

In my post on 3 immediate actions to take to retain your best people, I mentioned culture in the context of recruitment, because recruitment can be one of the fastest ways to shift culture. But this only works if you’re recruiting enough people into the business. You also need to be clear about the culture you’re aiming for before you start that process.

Tasking a manager to change culture

More often, when a business identifies that they have a problem with the culture in a certain team, the manager of that team is given the task of changing the culture. The problem with this approach is that culture doesn’t sit with just one person.

I’ve often seen managers given this task and when they think through what they need to do, they think, I need to:

  • completely change the dynamic of the group
  • make people redundant
  • make some other extreme changes to how things are done

Very often this is not successful. In fact, it can completely backfire.

A cautionary tale

Let’s take a look at a real Australian case that ended up in court, though I’ve changed some of the details to preserve the privacy of those involved. A new manager was recruited to a telecommunications company, let’s call her Tori. She was appointed to head up a client services team.

Tori won the role in a competitive field of candidates, including someone already in the client services team. I’ll call him Isaac. Isaac was the previous manager of the team, but the role was changed in a restructure, and he lost it to Tori. You can imagine how Isaac felt when he was told, ‘Hey, your role doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve replaced it with this other roughly equivalent management role. And Tori is getting the job.’

“You can imagine how Isaac felt when he was told, “Hey, your role doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve replaced it with this other roughly equivalent management role.”

Coming into the position, Tori was told by her superiors that she needed to “attack the workplace culture”. It was the problems with the team’s culture that had provoked the restructure in the first place.

‘problems with the team’s culture had provoked the restructure in the first place’

You can probably see where this is going. Many members of Tori’s team stayed loyal to Isaac and were very unhappy and unwilling to implement any changes she tried to put into place. For about a year, Tori struggled with a lack of cooperation from her team. Some of her team members just refused to accept her directions and there were constant rumours, offensive comments and rudeness.

Tori went to her direct manager and asked for help. But that manager was reluctant to get involved in the situation and provided no support to her. So then she went up two levels and asked for help from her manager’s manager, who again decided against getting involved.

Next, Tori’s team held a meeting behind her back when she wasn’t in the office, and gave her direct manager a list of complaints against her. The manager accepted the document. The next day, Tori went to see her doctor, and was then diagnosed by a psychiatrist with an adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression associated with work-related stress.

Before long, the case ended up in court. The court found Tori’s employer had been negligent by failing in its duty of care to her. The court also found that she was the victim of bullying behaviours, including:

  • failing to accord common courtesies
  • failing to provide assistance during busy periods
  • constant whispering
  • vindictive comments
  • disobeying requests.

The court found Tori’s employer had been negligent by failing in its duty of care to her’

The court also found that it would have been reasonable and practicable to prevent the situation from occurring. It said there was a foreseeable risk of injury in asking Tori to “attack the workplace culture” while the prior manager continued to work there.

The court awarded over $330,000 in damages to Tori for the psychological injury she developed which left her unable to work. This is an extreme example, but it does show what can happen if you ask a manager to change your workplace culture.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples where it was the new manager who became the bully to the employees. The problem is that there’s not usually a lot of instruction offered on how to go about changing a culture. For some people, the only approach they know is bulldozing.

Holistic approach

What can you do instead? The answer is to look at the whole organisation, not just at one isolated team. And you can’t just give the job of changing culture to one or two people.

Define your purpose and values

The first step is to define the purpose of your organisation — your ‘why’. Your ‘why’ describes the reason your organisation exists.

Once you know your ‘why’, you can define your ‘how’. Your ‘how’ describes your values as an organisation, in other words, how we act around here, and the behaviours we are looking for.

Next you connect these ‘why’ and ‘how’ insights to the goals and KPIs within your organisation, because that helps you understand what kind of culture is going to support your goals.

Let’s look at the example of a financial services firm. Their purpose is to provide mum and dad investors with clear advice, so they can create wealth. The way they do that — their ‘how’ — is through:

  • accountability
  • transparency
  • perseverance
  • teamwork

From there, they can define the goals of the organisation and measure them with key performance indicators mapped to those goals.

Once the firm has done this work, they can start asking ‘what kind of culture is going to support this?’. Since their purpose is to support mum and dad investors, they decide they will need a culture that is supportive, nurturing and caring to reflect this purpose. This offers a very clear lens on the desired workplace culture. It will empower team managers to create a roadmap to support their team culture.

Make the intangible tangible

We know how important culture is, but one of the most difficult things about it is that it’s so intangible. A lot of businesses get stuck trying to work out how to change culture without removing positions or hiring new people.

At Amplify HR, we have a 12-week project, where we make intangible culture tangible. The first step is to ensure our house is in order. We do a compliance review of our employment contracts and policies, because if people don’t think their terms and conditions are right, we’re never going to be able to create a fantastic culture.

Then we start to talk to employees. We ask, ‘What is it that you like about working here?’ and ‘What do you think could be done differently?’ We also talk to the lead team, asking those same questions, and looking at the company’s purpose, values, goals and KPIs. We say, ‘Okay, if this is where we’re at, where do we want to go?’

And then we create HR processes around key areas:

  • recruitment
  • onboarding
  • team meetings
  • performance discussions
  • goal-setting reviews
  • rewards and recognition
  • benefits
  • communication

If you put all of these ‘people and culture’ processes into a big melting pot, you’re essentially creating your culture. It’s all about these HR processes alongside great leadership. We know that direct leadership has an enormous impact on employee engagement, which of course impacts workplace culture.

Articulate your culture

If you have all this in place, these great people-and-culture processes, you will find that you attract and filter in the right people as well, because they are designed for your culture.

You will be clear on what you are looking for when you hire people, and what you’re looking for when you do your performance management. It means that everyone knows ‘how we work around here’ and ‘what we expect from everybody here’. Your people know you’re all in this together because you all have a role in shaping your workplace culture.

If you don’t have systems, processes and frameworks in place to make your culture clear to everyone, people are forced to make their own interpretations about how that workplace culture can be shaped.

If we go back to that example of the case that ended up in court, what might have happened if that business had clearly articulated the workplace culture? What if they said ‘we’re caring and we’re supportive’? And everybody knew this. Someone would have said, ‘This is not the way we do things around here.’ At the end of the day, that is the definition of culture.

Continue the process

Going back to our 12-week project at Amplify HR, defining our processes is not the end of the project. It’s not finished after 12 weeks, culture is an ongoing process. We need to ensure that we have processes and systems in place to keep our people and culture practices going.

For example, if we’re doing probation reviews, we’ll do a mid-probation review at three months, then a final review at five months. By the end of the six-month period, we need to make sure this has occurred, so we can use software to automate the reminders. We could also use diary notes, but we find the automated process is more reliable.

In any case, there has to be something in place to ensure the processes are completed and consistently applied. Consistency is key when it comes to workplace culture.

The takeaways

How do we shift culture? Recruitment is a quick way to do it, but if you can’t do that, try this:

  • describe your current workplace culture
  • Ask yourself, does everyone else see it in the same way that you do?
  • test your theory by:
    asking people in the organisation
    doing an employee survey
    holding some focus groups

Start to dig out the reality of where your culture sits at the moment — and where you want it to go from here.

Have your say

Have you tried to change your workplace culture? We’d love your feedback on this series, just head on over to Amplify HR or connect with Karen on LinkedIn.

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Karen Kirton

Founder of Amplify HR — a consulting company in Australia that specialises in enabling businesses to find, grow and keep great people. www.amplifyhr.com.au