An organization’s “culture” is simply defined as the expected way to behave within an organization. Stated more simply, organizational culture is “the way things are done around here” (Deal & Kennedy, 2000). Culture is not written rules or guidelines, but rather the way we act and how we get work done. The values of a particular organizational culture are engrained into the life of the organization. When culture is found to be ineffective or, worse, toxic, leaders discover that it is extremely difficult to change.
Many organizations start in the wrong place by making sweeping changes to the staff or executive team or attempting to overhaul every aspect of the current culture. Changing culture is more than a matter of changing the players, and seeking to change everything about an organization’s culture will inadvertently remove elements of the organization that are working well. Rather than taking a demolition approach, leaders would increase the possibility of successfully changing their organization’s culture by thinking of culture change as a renovation.
The importance of culture
A 2017 Harvard Business Review article compares organizational culture to the wind: “[Culture] is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt” (Walker & Soule, 2017). Harnessing the power of organizational culture is one of the keys to getting good work done. A recent conversation with friend, colleague, and mentor Brian Dolan, OBE, RMN, RGN, highlighted that it is a leader’s responsibility to understand this power, and determine if the current organizational culture is effective or ineffective in helping the organization fulfill its mission. For better and worse, culture and leadership are intricately interconnected (Groysberg, Lee, Price, & Cheng, 2018). Leaders, whether they do so intentionally or passively, are shaping the culture of their organizations. They should be capable of actively shaping culture to the benefit of everyone on the team and the realization of the organization’s goals (Craig, 2018).
Interestingly, though there is a plethora of articles, discussions, and research that focuses on cultural change, much controversy exists on whether it is possible to make these changes successfully. Undoubtedly, changing the culture of an organization is a steep challenge. It requires much more than recognizing a problem and leaders who are committed to making a change. It takes significant effort and investment at every level of the organization.
Still, despite the challenges to making a successful culture change, the outcomes regarding building the right culture are indisputable. Organizations that can turn the tide and maintain a “drive towards lasting improvement in performance and organizational health,” regularly outperform competitors (McKinsey, 2021).