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How to Keep Culture Strong Even in the Face of Change

How can you maintain your organization’s cultural norms in the face of new demands, like the pressure of market forces or your own internally generated growth? What if you need to be more nimble, flexible, or responsive to meet the nature and volume of market demand? And what if you can no longer rely on old products or old methods — even though they were successful for you in the past?

As a business changes, how does the leader — of a department, cross-functional team, or entire organization — explain the way forward? How can the leader get everyone to stay on the same page and figure out what parts of their jobs need to be adjusted? And how does the leader retain the strong, supportive parts of the culture, so that both the spirit of the business and the emotional energy of the teams remain vibrant?

To keep an organization’s culture strong in the face of change, it’s important to acknowledge and encourage productive behaviors and be on the lookout for negative behaviors.

Elimination Rounds

When the stakes are high, managers often feel pressure from above to change. Those who don’t know how to shift programs and procedures to get the desired results may be guilty of “swooping and pooping” — diving in to critique or challenge what an employee is doing, often in public. If the senior leadership tolerates this kind of damaging behavior, the deep work that’s necessary to shift the business may never get done.

Swooping and pooping drastically undercuts employees’ confidence as well as their sense of competence. Employees may feel driven into malicious compliance, keeping their heads down and following blindly — the equivalent of, “Boss, just tell me what to do!” — to avoid being dumped on again and again. Eventually, the business can experience excessive, ongoing attrition.

Another negative impact on employees can occur when a middle manager’s proposal is rejected, and that manager has to go back to the troops to explain why. The manager may simply shrug and report, “They said we can’t do it,” or blame it on a more senior manager — “Oh, you know how Executive X is!” — rather than explaining the decision and how it will work for the team and benefit the organization. In this case, you’re likely to see problems with comprehension, communication, and collaboration developing further down the chain.

Time Trials

Almost all managers need to spend more time with their teams, both in group settings and one-on-one. Senior leaders should provide both direction and coaching, whether internal or external, to help middle managers communicate the goals and realities of the business in developmental and even inspirational ways.

The typical hour per week allotted to employee meetings is almost meaningless. Devoting an hour a day to talking about the real needs of the business, the employees, and the activities crucial to meeting the mission is more like it — that’s focused attention.

Use this important, additional time for talking about the big picture and providing support when asked — without micromanagement or passive-aggressiveness — to ensure that employees each have their own sense of agency and autonomy. They need to know that they are skillful enough and trusted enough to do their own work and try out their new ideas — with their leader’s intelligent guidance.

Swoop-and-poop-style managers often spend too much time with their staff, as if their employees can’t do anything on their own. But when supportive managers spend more time with their folks, they build little cells of activism which can strengthen the culture over time.

Go for the Gold

Leaders at each level can showcase strong accomplishments and point out to the rest of the organization how the team’s work has made a difference — for customers, colleagues, the community, and the business. Employees shouldn’t have to grandstand or make self-important presentations to get noticed. In fact, it’s better to minimize the attention given to people who behave that way; instead, recognize and praise positive behavior that benefits the group as a whole.

Managers who model productive behavior and acknowledge others’ worthwhile contributions serve as “keepers of the flame,” passing the torch of cultural norms throughout the organization and keeping everyone feeling warm and bright.

Onward and upward,


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