Organisational culture change: role models and their role

Published 10th January 2017 by Marketing Department

What is organisational culture?

Organisational culture is hard to define but overall there are two competing ideas.

Legge (1995) says culture is something an organisation has, like a collective conscience, a unifying series of beliefs that govern ‘how we do things around here.’ That means it’s about behaviour and the way that people act within the organisation.

The other definition of organisational culture is something the organisation is, a product of the social interaction between individuals in the organisation.

What do you think? It’s actually really important, because it affects how you go about embedding culture change using role models.

Organisational culture: how do you change it?

Culture: something the organisation has

If you believe culture is something the organisation has, you’re likely to try to change people’s behaviour as a way to change the culture. Role models are used to showcase the desired new behaviours in the hope that employees will adopt these behaviours. If they do, the culture has changed.

Maybe you’re trying to establish a culture of shorter working hours. If your MD is seen to go home on time every day, that should encourage people to follow suit. Or perhaps you’re trying to establish a more collaborative working culture, in which case your senior leadership team could seek feedback from employees earlier in the decision-making process.

Over time it’s likely your employees will adopt these new behaviours. Has the culture changed? Well, if you think culture is defined by behaviour, then yes. But Ogbonna (1996) suggests that employees may adopt new behaviours but without actually shifting their values or beliefs. In effect, this type of change is a “culture created by senior management for the lower orders to follow.”

Culture: something the organisation is

If you believe culture is something the organisation is, then changing culture is about changing the conversations that naturally happen between people. Often organisations do this by altering the balance of employees, so hiring managers will start changing the criteria for attitudes, mindset and disposition they look for in new people.

In terms of role modelling, it’s more complex. If you can’t just role model desired behaviours, what can you do? It comes down to what you appeal to. In the above examples, when we looked at shorter working hours and collaborative working cultures, when culture is something the organisation has, you are appealing to an employee’s sense of duty to hierarchical structures.

But if you believe culture is something the organisation is, you must appeal to people’s feelings, emotions and sense of identity within the organisation. As Hofstedt (1995) puts it, it’s about “visible leadership which appeals to employees’ feelings as much as their intellect.”

It’s hard to convince people to change their feelings – you can’t tell people to think something else but must give them the information and create the conditions in which they self-develop and evolve.

How do you do this?

Here’s an example. If your culture has a cynicism problem that naturally comes out when employees talk in private, it may simply be a problem of information asymmetry. Employees think leaders don’t care because they don’t know about key external pressures or aren’t privy to senior-level conversations

Imagine a private conversation between two employees where one of them says about the senior management team, “they didn’t need to make those employees redundant, they don’t care.” The feeling that creates this statement may be alleviated by clear and transparent information on the company’s desperate financial position and upcoming costs.

Information sharing and a respect for employees at all levels, regardless of hierarchy, can be role modelled by senior managers. This is not about behaviour, but trying to develop the conditions and feelings that give rise to conversations between people.

A crucial part of this is leaders being congruent with what’s being said – overtly and covertly – to employees, otherwise known as walking the talk. So if the organisation says it cares about people this must be perceived by employees in leaders’ behaviours. This helps create the right conditions for more positive conversations to spring from.

Role modelling for culture change: which definition is right?

In reality, culture is both something the organisation has and something the organisation is. Role modelling behaviours is a catalyst for behavioural change, but ultimately private conversations reflect what people really think. The best role models tackle the behavioural side and also the congruence and emotional sides. What’s your experience of role modelling? How have you seen it done well?

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