Business & Management Communication & Leadership

Business culture – part 3

If you’ve reached this far in the process then you’ve assessed the cultural situation within the business (the what), you know what your objectives are (the where) and you have concluded that cultural change is a necessary factor to achieve those objectives (the why). Now you must change the  “behaviours and beliefs”, as referred to in part 1 of this series, in order to achieve the how.

There is one overriding factor when considering culture change; you. I refer back to part 1 where I stated, “If you are a manager of people then the culture of your team is a mirror image of you”, therefore, you are the catalyst in culture change.

I think of this process as happening in rapid stages and no matter how I’ve tried to change the order, I can’t, it has always required sequential phases and these are my four, fundamental steps when dealing with culture change:

  • Establish credibility
  • Gain trust
  • Communicate universally
  • Act decisively

Credibility – you will be asking a group of people, many of whom have worked together for a number of years, to follow a new and different direction. They do not know you, therefore, you need to establish your credibility to demonstrate and prove your ability; doubting you is their prerogative.

Trust – you are going to ask people to follow you; this isn’t the military and you aren’t at war, there are no trenches and bullets will not fly in anyone’s direction but you will be asking for commitment to your plan that many people will feel uncomfortable with or unprepared/unqualified to act upon. They need to trust you.

Communication – at a point in the process you will need to present to the whole group your message but at the beginning, when you are going through the stages, be very careful to ensure that your message is clear and consistent with everyone.

Act – what you communicate is dependent on the research you have conducted and your subsequent conclusions. The format is dependent upon the information you will present and how your audience will best receive it but what is absolutely crucial is that you act upon those conclusions and do it decisively. Hesitation, or the perception of it, will be disproportionately magnified at this stage.

Let’s look at the above in more detail and with some examples:

When referring to credibility I am specifically referring to your knowledge and experience, as this is what you will use as justification for others to follow your agenda. Yes, credibility and trust do co-exist but in the case of culture change, they need to be addressed separately. Establishing credibility is never easy, whether you arrive at a business on a wave of hype or a rather more muted affair, you need to establish your provenance or authenticity as a manager.

In my experience, what has been important has been to “wipe the slate clean”, start afresh and establish your credentials with the group of people who, naturally, may have serious reservations or doubts about yet another manager attempting changes. Disassociate yourself from previous managers and their methods (even if these are fundamentally similar in origin) and advance your own identity, one that the majority can relate to and will define the culture under your direction. This requires self-awareness and absolute honesty in its application, look at the key factors in your personality that have brought you this far and make those the focal point when engaging with others.

In my career, I have been able to use my industry experience and technical knowledge to establish credibility; facilitating culture change within the confines of your chosen discipline is less complicated than attempting to do so outside of it. Establishing credibility will happen if you have a commonality, conversations can begin at a level above novice or uninitiated and as long as you keep to your level of ability and be honest, people will accept you.

A few years ago, circumstances took me outside of the packaging industry to a firm operating within the heavy engineering sector. My years in packaging had no bearing here and additionally, I was in a foreign country with only 5 of 50+ staff speaking English; I needed to establish my credibility quickly or it was going to be a very short assignment. I sought out the one person who most people trusted and listened to, yet no one actually reported into, this person was my route to credibility by proxy. In working with this person I was able discuss and put forward my ideas, using what was effectively storytelling to highlight my knowledge and experience, demonstrating how I had identified and overcome problems in the past. Here, I had no means to establish my technical credibility, I am not an engineer but what I was able to do was provide enough genuine examples and evidence of actual results to establish my credibility as a manager and leader of change.

There can be nothing insincere or disingenuous about this approach; once again, honesty and sincerity are vital in order for this to succeed, anything less will have serious negative consequences at some point in the future. Almost without exception, there is a person within every business whose position belies their influence within an organisation; they have reached this position of trust because they have relatable qualities, seek them out and work closely with them to help establish your credibility.

As I’ve said, credibility and trust can go hand in hand but to ensure success in the process of culture change I have deliberately separated these two attributes, why? Well, credibility deals with one’s knowledge and ability whereas trust is about listening, supporting and providing what people need.

Photo by Savvas Stavrinos on

Gaining trust at this stage needs to be swift and purposeful. Quickly identify changes or improvements (better if previously overlooked or deemed unimportant) and fix them, this will demonstrate that you are reliable and trustworthy. Personally, I stay away from twee deeds (such as pizza on Friday’s) as they are insignificant and don’t deal with the underlying problem of people’s physiological needs. A simple but effective way of doing this is to conduct a “survey” and ask what changes, improvements or fixes people want, this gives you a list of what matters, what satisfies those physiological needs. Invariably these lists contain the mundane (cheap and doable) to the extreme (expensive and impractical) and I can almost guarantee that the list will contain more of the former than the latter (most people are realistic with a new manager; they don’t want to push their luck too soon). Requests resulting from surveys in the past have ranged from:

  • Increasing break times from 15 to 20 minutes
  • Allowing nationals to retain their passports and not HR (that’s true)
  • Sponsoring English language courses
  • Fixing the broken toilet block (not me personally)
  • Replacing and relocating a printer
  • Installing air conditioning units

Obviously, this list is non exhaustive but it demonstrates that asking what people want and then delivering on those requests will help you gain trust. All of these requests were taken care of quickly and with a positive upturn in morale and engagement to the process of change, I had gained the trust of my new colleagues and could sustain the momentum of change.

In the next part I will be looking at communication and action in greater detail and providing what I hope are helpful anecdotes and examples.

(c) Andy Collinsson 2020

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