Leaders Change the Culture, Not Just Policies
It’s easy to change policies. It is hard to change the culture. Changing a policy can be temporal. Changing the culture is foundational.
What is the culture?
Culture is a value that is deeply engrained in the ethos of the human fabric of your team—so deeply rooted, it is not questioned. It is embedded in our subconscious minds and entrenched in our habits. When the culture of our team is changed, the destiny of our team is transformed.
For 23 years, I have lived in the United States. The culture here is that of rule and law. Citizens of our country respect laws. This idea is so “normal,” that the vast majority of citizens don’t even question its validity. But the fact is, this is not the case in many countries.
When the government is corrupt, and the local officials operate on bribes; when the laws are archaic, and the top leaders break the law and get away with it, how do the citizens respond? How do they view the idea of following laws? Quite predictably, people do what is necessary to survive and support their families. And when they live in a culture where breaking the law is the norm, then the rule of law is not the culture. This is a small example that is so vivid for me personally, of how a person in a group will adapt to his environment and will become the embodiment of the culture he lives in. This is true for a team, a family, a church, or an organization.
So the culture is the very foundation and the spirit from which beliefs and actions spring from. It is the attitudes, the thoughts, and the world-view of people that come together to define who we are, what we stand for, and how we think and behave.
Have a culture reality check.
So how do you describe the culture of the organization or the group of people you lead? Consider your family, your church, your country, or your team. If someone were to enter into your midst, what feelings would they get from spending a day with your people? What springs forth quite naturally? What does the atmosphere of your organization say about your culture?
Is it respectful and kind, or abrasive?
Is it cooperative and collaborative, or obstinate?
Is it forgiving and merciful, or cruel?
Is it empowering and inspiring, or disheartening?
Is it honest and honorable, or decadent?
Is it uplifting and encouraging, or oppressively constricting?
Is it orderly and effective, or chaotically confusing?
Is it cost conscious and customer-centric, or self-seeking?
One cannot escape the culture. It is what it is, and it is clearly seen and felt. So I want to encourage you my friend, to face the reality of your culture. List words that describe it.
Then, aim to change it.
How can you change the culture?
Great leaders aim to change the culture, not just the policies. In truth, it is not simple or easy to change. But it is key to recognize the importance of its impact, and to realize that it’s your responsibility and duty to change it. Begin with clarity.
Changing the culture starts by being clear on your current culture, and where it should be. That is half the battle. It can be painful to think about. It is for me sometimes. At times, we feel inept and discouraged as leaders. We think we should have done better by now. So, we quite literally avoid thinking of how poor the culture is for us at home, at work, or amid our teams.
Have courage and have hope. Culture is changed one simple step at a time. You can change it if you intentionally aspire to. I will give you some key principles here:
- To change a culture, first change yourself. You must be convinced before you can influence others. Give it your total buy-in, and take the lead in applying changes. If the leader does not exemplify the culture change, nothing will happen. You cannot delegate this. You have to model it and champion it. If you want the culture to be that of customer service, you must demonstrate great customer care. If you want the culture to be that of kindness, you must become kind. If you want the culture to be that of meeting deadlines, you must meet deadlines.
- Then, make decisions that reflect the changes you wish to make. Do you wish to make changes in team priorities? In what you do with and for the team? Or in how you reward people? Then, begin making decisions that direct you toward those goals. If you would like to have a culture of giving and community service, then allow your people to volunteer and give them a few hours of PTO (Personal Time Off) each month for doing it. If you want the culture to be more fun, then create an employee break area where fun is encouraged—maybe with a popcorn machine or an air hockey table.
- Be consistent. This is so important. You cannot say something once, or perform an action once or twice to change a culture. You have to keep at it.
- More importantly, be confidently persistent. Don’t be overbearing, but you have to press in—sometimes with kindness, sometimes by appealing to the heart, and sometimes with a strict expectation.
- When the culture stops changing, it is time to find a new method. Search for it. Be creative.
- Be patient, cultures change slowly. But don’t use that as an excuse not to push things in the desired direction.
- If a few members don’t want to come along, remove those who oppose the culture changes that need to be made. After all, you are entrusted with the vision. Don’t surrender to the status quo. Great leaders have the courage to make the tough decisions, and the toughest decisions a leader can make is sometimes removing key people from the team who are holding it down.
Anytime I have taken over a team or an organization, the first thing I assess is the culture. And my dream is always to improve it. It is what I work hard for—to create an environment that from its very depths emanates all that is pleasant and right. It is rarely easy. But when I work on improving the culture, I know I am doing the hard work a leader should do. I am not abdicating my core responsibilities. This is the very work of leadership that takes people to great destinies. I invite you to join me today by standing firm and starting the diligent work of molding the culture of your team.
Question: What is a method you have previously used to change the culture of your team?
(I will be the first to answer this question in the comments section below. I look forward to reading your response as well.)
For Further Reading: