Why is Culture Change So Difficult to Achieve?

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The major banks were back in the spotlight again last week in the aftermath of their respective CEO’s appearing before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics. I am prompted to write again on the importance of culture in today’s organisation irrespective of size, and of culture change. An article appeared in last Thursday’s (October13th) Australian Financial Review Why bank culture comes down to the person at the top by Dennis Gentillin . In turn this article prompted me to recall a number of key points made by speakers at the recent Human Synergistics Conference in Sydney the theme of which was Leadership and Culture – It’s a Two Way Street.
In my view and in line with our experience working with organisations developing and changing culture, Dennis Gentillin nailed it in his article when he wrote “when banks are under pressure to produce results, it is only the CEO who can make sure that ethical standards count for something.” The same can be said of any organisation’s culture; it is the CEO and their leadership team that drive the culture from the top down, research confirming this is without question.
Culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Leadership can shape and drive culture or the opposite can apply where the culture can drive leadership, the only problem with the latter is that the culture may not be one which is constructive and ethical or desired by the organisation.
Leaders have direct and indirect impact on the culture . Their direct impact is through role modelling desired behaviour, they shape behaviour and they set expectation. Indirectly, leaders impact through their visibility – management by walking around (mbwa) – and through their communication promote a clear vision and values, gather information, and observe how effective structures and systems are within their organisation.
Unless leaders at all levels are practicing mbwa they miss vital clues about what is going in their organisation’s culture. There are many definitions of culture, however in his recent keynote address at the Human Synergistics conference, retired Lieutenant General David Morrison offered us his definition of culture “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”. I am also reminded of his other quote in his landmark speech in June 2013 “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” How can any leader hear the stories or understand what standards are in play unless they are regularly walking around observing behaviours and hearing the stories being told about what is acceptable behaviour within the organisation.
We can survey and quantify organisational culture, and there are a myriad of examples through case studies and research papers about successful and unsuccessful culture change. Yet maybe the real challenge to changing an organisation’s culture remains the organisation’s culture. Something for us all to think about.

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