Cultural transformation only comes with personal transformation

People Resist Being Changed

In a survey of top leaders by Booz and Company last year 84% said culture was critical to success and yet the majority admitted their culture was in need of a major overhaul. So, how do you transform a culture to meet your company’s needs today? How can you get employees or teams to behave the way you need them to execute your strategies and enhance your performance as well as your employee engagement and the customer experience? How do you get the innovation and agility you need in fast-changing markets? How do you get the cross-organizational collaboration that makes one plus one equal three?

You can do that only by improving the behaviors of people. That’s because culture is nothing more than the collective beliefs and habits of the people in an organization. So in the end, you can only transform cultures by facilitating personal transformation in people.

Herein lies the challenge; cultures tend to resist what they most need to change because people resist changing life-long habits and beliefs that are an engrained part of their personal and professional lives.

That was the challenge I personally faced more than 35 years ago as I set out to create a culture-shaping firm. The central question was; how do you change habits of already successful adults? How do you get a seasoned executive who is over-controlling and territorial to collaborate, delegate and coach? How do you get a culture where people blame others, are inwardly-focused, risk-averse or resistant to change to become more accountable, customer-centric, agile and innovative?

Of equal importance is how can you do that in a way that that creates an aligned set of common, healthy behaviors throughout an organization and not just within a person here and there?

Here is what we learned didn’t work
1. Telling people to be different didn’t work even if they agreed with you.
2. Sending them off to get “fixed” and then having them come back to be surrounded by others who didn’t get what they got even if they got it.
3. Hanging values on the wall and having meetings to just talk about them.
4. Conducting assessments and gaining other “outside – in” input doesn’t change most people. For example, someone may have received data saying they don’t listen throughout their whole career, yet he or she probably still doesn’t listen.
5. Expecting people to behave differently when their bosses don’t. (My boss needs this more than I do.)

Here is what we learned does work
So what has proven to work? Think of someone you know who had major shifts in behavior almost overnight. The hamburger-and-fries-eating couch potatoes who start walking regularly and eating better probably had a health scare that got their attention. They had an aha! moment. The parent with the first child that reorganizes their priorities and their life. The person who had a near-death experience, and is suddenly nicer and more grateful for life. A man who has been told repeatedly that he doesn’t listen may listen to his second wife if the first one divorced him for not listening. No one arrives at these changes intellectually. Change comes from an experience that gets people’s attention and causes them to stop and reflect and shift their mindset.

At Senn Delaney, we have demonstrated over decades of culture-shaping work with hundreds of companies that the secret to changing lies in creating those aha! moments around a set of what we call Essential Values, such as accountability, trust/respect, collaboration and innovation.

1) Unfreeze our underlying thought system
We call this key to change “unfreezing” because it challenges our underlying thought system, giving us the ability to choose a new way we want to be.
People may have developed a “for me to win, you have to lose” mindset from years of playing sports but gain the realization that inside the company that mindset no longer serves anyone. People who have been told by their moms, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”, and now find it is getting in the way of developing and coaching people. (the cause of Midwest polite) Those who believe leaders shouldn’t make mistakes and thus have a habit of explaining why things are not their fault (providing excuses) and realize through a moment of insight that it’s best to acknowledge reality and get on with solutions.

We call these realizations “inside out” learning, and have demonstrated that it is far more transformational than “outside in” learning. When we get that deeper insight and make a personal commitment to a new way of being, the changed behavior is much more likely to stick, especially when reinforced.

This insight-based learning is much more effective in shifting culture than great communication programs, informational meetings or inspirational talks. People learn best when they personally experience something, as opposed to just hearing it, being told about it or reading about it.

2) Use inside-out approach with teams, starting at the top
Our other finding is this “inside out” learning approach works best when done with a leader and his or her team, starting at the top. The process has to start at the top because of the Shadow of the Leader phenomenon I wrote about in an earlier article. It works best in teams because as Kurt Lewin, the famous social scientist, said, ”The immediate social group is the greatest determinant of behavior.” When teams have collective aha!s, they tend to better hold each other accountable for the jointly agreed upon behavior changes.

The failure of most culture-shaping efforts is that organizations skip the unfreezing step in the change model. They may run diagnostics and analyze survey data. They may define core values and competencies and select a set of leadership behaviors. They may communicate them and hold educational sessions about them. What they fail to do is truly unfreeze old behaviors and connect people at a gut level to the Essential Values.

3) Help people make a personal connection to the change by understanding the reason for needed change
We have also found that change is easier when people understand the purpose or reason for shaping the culture. They need to be clear on the “from and to” of the journey. They need to understand that the changes will improve both the spirit and performance of their organization and help it better fulfill its purpose . That will help them make a stronger personal commitment to needed changes in them and their team.

The concept of rapid behavior change through insightful experiences is not new and is well documented, yet the impact is vastly underestimated. It is human nature for us to be more committed to outcomes when we decide to change ourselves.

4) Help people to connect to healthy values for work and life effectiveness by being at their best
There is one other secret to lasting change. The Essential Values for an organization are also principles of life effectiveness for people. You don’t just change work behaviors, you change life behaviors. So, when people see that their insights are leading to better relationships at home as well as work, and a better quality of life, they want that to be a part of them. I think that may be what Peter Senge meant when he said “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”

The behaviors needed in a healthy, high-performance culture also make great tools for people to live their lives. A winning culture includes collaboration, personal responsibility, learning and growing, respect, trust and many other important personal values.

Fortunately, it turns out that we don’t need to learn these values — we already have them. They show up automatically when we are at our best. The trick is to be at our best more often. I will address how to live life “at your best” in a future post.

Steps to start thinking about making change in your own life
These insights for changing organizational behaviors and shifting cultures can also be used by individuals to begin to examine your own habits and thinking. Here are a few action steps you can take:

  1. Think of a time or life circumstance that gave you an aha! and shifted your thinking
  2. What are some habits you have that you know it’s time to reflect on. What shift in thinking could you take to shift that behavior? Think about the benefits to making that change and write them down and keep them handy.
  3. Once you have identified something you personally want to change, share that with a trusted friend, family member or colleague and ask them to help you commit to that change by reminding you when the behavior is showing up.

What do you think about these workplace culture insights and the importance of personal transformation?  What has worked for you to support a shift in behavior? Please comment below.

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Dr. Larry Senn is a pioneer in the field of corporate culture. He is chairman and founder of international culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company. Larry's vision and leadership for more than 35 years has helped Senn Delaney become an international firm that is widely recognized as the leading authority and practitioner in the field of culture shaping. Larry has led culture-shaping engagements for the leaders of numerous organizations, including dozens of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, state governors, members of two U.S. president's cabinets, deans of business schools and the presidents of major universities. He is an accomplished consultant, business advisor, group facilitator, author, CEO coach and public speaker. Larry has co-authored several books, including Winning Teams, Winning Cultures and 21st Century Leadership. In 2013, he published his latest book, Up the Mood Elevator: Living Life at Your Best. This book reveals some profound principles, fascinating concepts and useful practical tools to help people improve their experience of life, enhance results, build better relationships and create success with less stress. Prior to founding Senn Delaney, Larry ran his own retail business in college, was a senior engineer in the aerospace industry and a faculty member at University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles where he taught leadership. Larry has a BS in engineering, an MBA from UCLA, and a doctorate degree in business administration from USC. Read his full bio.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.sm4hc.com/ Scott Scowcroft

    Share the change you want with someone important in your life, and ask him/her to hold you accountable. That’s the hard part, isn’t it?

  • sergeitoom

    Hi, Larry. I agree with your point of view. Critical Thinking give new Mindset, becoming a Thought Leader. Thought Leader can realize new Business Decisions for SME’s – Nanotechnology /New IP of Nano /. Also, Thought Leader can make correct Strategic Consulting for any company / working with Big Data /. Now, I see the Transformation of Thought Leader : On – line Consulting for CEO & SME’s , about New Business Opportunity for SME’s with Social Media / Next Level /. Best Regards, Sergey .