Looking to Impact Culture? Mind the Gap(s)
When considering the journey of changing organizational culture there is a need to link tangible business outcomes to cultural change efforts. Yet the experience, actions and counsel of many self-avowed culture leaders are in discord with the changes they claim to support, and thus never yield the promised business outcomes. The fallout is consigning a critical business driver (culture) to something squishy and nebulous in the minds of key decision makers.
There are numerous tributaries to the practical challenge of organizational culture change. Practically speaking it’s a difficult task to actually change a group's beliefs and behaviors. Because this domain gets industry attention and media buzz in part from the Millennial Workforce Wave, many culture "experts" are ostensibly preaching to the choir offering no original ideas or relatable primary experience. In this post we’ll explore a sobering perspective around gaps of practical experience, credibility, and motive for effecting cultural change in the workplace.
For context, I landed in this field from an atypical collision of graduate school classes, teaching, creating video games for behavioral change, and Innovation consulting for a F300 company. While that logs at about 13 years of broad experience in this domain, I will give proper deference to those who made organizational development their life’s pursuit shaping the science and practice. Yet, coming from a multi-disciplinary background does allow some worthwhile perspectives. That is to say I have found gaps that undermine and hold organizations back. One example emerged from observing and working with a quag of self-avowed progenitors of corporate culture nostrums.
So....“What’s real?” “What’s effective?” “Who’s legit?”
Jargon, Drivel & just plain B.S.
The domain of organizational development [OD], leadership development and team dynamics has knowledge sourcing from Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, and Behavioral Economics. Any specialty field will have a vernacular, and it’s expected that the corporate world will appropriate terminology and concepts, often to the detriment of rigor for the sake of business efficiency. While co-opted terminology may lend to a more concise articulation of a topic, casual use can impede actual progress by creating a foreground din obfuscating what’s real.
Here’s gap number one. Scientific nomenclature devolved down to jargon, strung together into talking points and platitudes less meaningful than bumper stickers. Talking the talk won’t drive change. The unfortunate result for many companies is that this is a common disease vector for a larger corporate pathology. To put a finer point on it, we see a confusion of efficacy versus (verbal) activity propagated by the culture con artists with whom the organization had put their trust. Just because someone can blow the dog whistle of talking points and social media hashtags does not transform them into a seasoned expert in a very complex field.
Experience & Platform
Captain Obvious says cultural change must be viewed at strategic and operational levels, but the difficult journey of shifting a corporate culture hovers around talking points and bromidic anecdotes from keynotes fantasizing this is their TED Talk moment. We have a two-sided problem with organizational culture and a massive gap between. This is gap number two. On one side, many *ahem* experts are county fair, cover bands for other peoples’ rigorous research and field work. On the other side, we have middle management primarily seeking conference bags full of cheap pens, chachkies, and a new injection of corporate-speak to reinforce the Folie a deux. All are culpable in workplace dysfunction because they have only succeeded in being parrots. Although actual parrots have more imagination.
Let’s clarify with an example. At conferences, conventions, events and meetups, I’ve heard the advice to “be intentional” so often that my ears ring. Intentionality appears like good advice, but most companies do not know how to make cultural change intentional. We also hear from the stage the workplace is broken! Make your culture meaningful! Be authentic! Be vulnerable! Okay, but how? How did you actually do it Mr/Ms. speaker? For whom? What was the result? Don't PowerPoint and Hashtag your audience. Organizational change requires action beyond a select corporate group filling their cup at conferences and returning with big ideas for more annual surveys.
The evidence for this gap is compelling because there is such a disconnect between lofty mission and vision statements, discussions around cultural change, and the behaviors that follow. Furthermore some organizations have an entire department dedicated to their employees. Ironically it's called human resources, but these managers are storm troopers of compliance, conformity, and the status quo. They aren't aren't the intrepid vanguard of necessary cultural change, but they'll talk the talk. All this sums up as a third gap (more like a chasm) between words and action playing out in workplaces. Most orgs knee jerk to the annual benefit survey, maybe a panel discussion, or stay interview as an indication they are intentional or empathetic. They would be better served to start by listening (without judgement) to water cooler, hallway, and break room conversations in the spirit of creating an authentic connection among people. This requires trust and the ability to respond almost real-time.
Philosophy aside, most companies are ill-equipped for this at a functional level. Being present without being an interloper, requires new methods and processes (technology not withstanding) to engage, trust, and demonstrate authenticity. I unabashedly recommend ThirdSpace because of its depth beyond software, ease of implementation and flexibility to adapt to your organizational needs.
Okay, so I've caricatured the keynote / conference speaker. In our experience with ThirdSpace, we’ve had the privilege to address a variety of audiences regarding ways to shift organizational culture. I enjoy opportunities to relate anecdotes and perspectives, but speaking engagements feel superficial and self-indulgent because cultural shifts and initiating change takes root in a much different venue. This is a gap of motive. What's the motivation for the poster boys? Beware of those too eager to take up the microphone.
One thing I will promise to any organization who works with ThirdSpace is that we will not waste time spinning around unknown destinations. Rather, we will target your optimal future state and use humanistic and technological approaches to accelerate the change. Is it the only way? No. It is the best way? Who knows. What I know is that I've witnessed the grifters, hucksters, charlatans, and frauds with their vacuous infomercials are peddling chicanery across the board from social media to the culture conference circuit.
Apply aggressive filters to weed them out. Example, an academic pedigree doesn't mean they can translate theory to practice in your environment. Look for guides who have invested the care and empathy (shared experience) in the trenches with their customers versus those who can primarily regurgitate other’s work because they lack breadth and depth. The real McCoys will assume the risk, actively lead and get their hands dirty. They have empathy because they've been in similar shoes, struggled and persevered. Conversely, I've seen some self-avowed opportunistically snap selfies for stroking their social media ego. Such tone def behavior says this isn't really about your organization's needs.
Given that the future of your organization is at stake, you'll need to be bold by challenging those experts internally and externally, otherwise you'll trip on the gaps of experience, credibility, and motive. Mind the gaps.