Changing Values

It’s hard to change your corporate culture, because it requires changing the way people think, feel, and act. And smart people can do really stupid things when they try to change other people.

Once, long ago, I worked with a company that was struggling to attract top notch people in a very small field. The were constrained by the number of people they had, and the were loosing good people, who were hard to replace. So, they wisely decided that they needed to to change their corporate culture, and to make themselves a more attractive place to work.

Their primary tactic in achieving this strategy was to publish a new “company values” statement, and adding “cool” to the list of criteria by which employees were judged at review time. Figuring that if their employees became cooler, people would be more attracted to working with the company. At the same time they also hosted “mandatory fun” activities outside of work hours, on top of the mandatory overtime, and near-constant travel, which was the norm for many of their employees. Head In Sand

At the same time the manager, who was the force behind this, continued to speak condescendingly towards others he perceived as “less valuable” in the organization and was well know for his political games, and his “me first” attitude. This lead to widespread fear that the subjectivity of the “cool” rating was just an attempt to provide material for weeding out the “undesirable” employees.

Needless to say, their attempts did not earn them a worldwide reputation as “one of the most fun places to work.” And many people who felt their contributions weren’t valued left, and they told stories which made it even harder to find people in their small field.

If you want to change your corporate culture, you have to change the way people think, the way they feel, and the way they behave.

Changing people is hard. Rearranging words on paper is easy. Smart companies don’t confuse the two.

If you want to effect real change in an organization:

  • Start with changing yourself. You are part of the culture, and if you are a leader people are watching what you do more closely than what you say.
  • Be honest with yourself and with everybody involved about the problem. Take responsibility for your part what’s gone wrong.
  • Ask people to join you in the hard work of making things better.
  • Continually look for the reasons behind people’s resistance. Perhaps there’s a lack of trust, perhaps the your words are saying one things, and your actions are saying another.

Honesty, openness, and ability to communicate a vision of how things could be better will get you a long way. But you also need to be prepared for resistance, and you need to learn from that resistance. As Jerry Weinberg says:

“Overcoming” is not what you want to do with so-called resistance. What you’re calling “resistance” is what it looks like to you when [people] don’t feel safe following your suggestions. So, what you want to do is learn from it–it’s a gold mine of information, as long as you don’t push to “overcome” it.

Another thing you might want to consider in that most negative corporate cultures trickle down from the top. Contempt is the sulfuric acid of organizational change, it creates defensiveness, super-charges resistance, and corrodes working relationships.

So, if your managerial team shows any traces of contempt, you might want to do is buy a couple copies of Bob Sutton’s new book “The No Asshole Rule” and slip them on a few key people’s desks.

3 Responses to “Changing Values”

  1. I think your really on to something. I used to work at a company that exhibited many of the problems your mentioning. I happen to think one of other parts of the problem is when people are ignorant of their own emotions. Emotions are are the driving force in everyone’s actions. When managers or CEO’s are not aware of these emotions…things like what you describe happen.

    Now working for a GREAT company, it is very easy to contrast this healthy behavior with the unhealthy behavior of a team of managers that is ignorant of their own emotional health.

    Management can say anything they want, but truly believing and acting in a professional manner while doing the “change” is the real secret. Making a blanket “corporate culture statement ” that has no basis in reality is a massive red flag….and probably a sign it is time to seek another job.

  2. I loved the quote from Jerry Weinberg. It summed up beautifully something which I had realised, but not put into words. Having it put concretely will certainly allow me to better react to resistance in the future, as I can now label and understand it better.


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