Myths about Culture Change

7 Myths You Need to Know  …

For Building the Modern Workplace Culture

Are you a bit confused or weary of the circular conversation around culture change?

Becoming wary of the common rhetoric on culture?

  • Millennials are entitled.
  • Boomers are resistant to change.
  • Engagement scores are up 1%…Woo Hoo.

As someone who has served leaders and companies in their culture change efforts for nearly 20 years, I’ve noticed the recent wave around culture has done little to dispel common myths that work against the grain of meaningful, sustainable, positive change.

I’ve also noticed, not much has really changed about what people want at work: Be treated kindly. Be appreciated. Be challenged.

Since “culture” has become THE topic du jour, it seems every consulting firm now has a process, program, or magic pill you can swallow to build a great workplace. A culture that will please (read: engage) the younger generations and appease the older set.

Great aspiration, yet buyer beware.

There are several culture change myths behind the multitude of approaches and programs and technologies that promise Nirvana At Work. These myths speak to the heart of an economic engine that values money and things over people. What really needs to change in our workplaces? Outdated mindsets and practices leftover from the Industrial Era, when people were seen as units of productivity.

The Modern Workplace is about embracing change, diversity, collaboration. These are not new ideas. However, they need the proper structure to foster performance and speed in today’s competitive landscape.

Great companies today are enacting culture change by challenging autocratic and outdated work rules, environments, and styles, and replacing them with faster and higher-value ways of giving customers and employees what they want.

Let’s explore the 7 myths:

Myth #1: Lead with Vision and Values.

These terms are so over-used and under-practiced, they have spawned their own category of consultants. There is no such thing as “Vision and Core Values” transforming a workplace. The only thing that does that is leadership. A true leader will spend his or her time cultivating collective excitement, energy and passion for a compelling definition of winning and success, that is relatable outside the executive suite. Spending days off-site getting the words right and translating those into a campaign is NOT leading with Vision and Values. That takes non-sexy, patient, consistent effort to demonstrate decisions are aligned with aspirations.

Myth #2: Millennials are entitled and lazy.

I know you don’t believe this or you wouldn’t be reading right now. And, there is formidable tension in most companies today towards the Younger Generations. It often stems from lack of trained capacity to embrace diverse perspectives and people. There is nothing inherently wrong with stereotyping; it helps create target markets and simplifies certain aspects of business. It also creates inaccurate prejudice and doesn’t foster connectivity we desperately need in today’s workplaces. I hope to fuel a widespread effort to bust the myth of a fundamental generational gap. That one of those generations holds values that are right, and the other is wrong. This is futile and wasted effort. We need to train the largest generation on the planet (Boomers, we raised them!) in sound leadership principles and skills. To teach and mentor the younger generation so they can properly channel their inherent desire for change into workable solutions to big problems in our world.

Myth #3: Hierarchy is dead.

It is alive and well in most companies. Leadership and chain of command has a place. Not as a cover for shirking decisions, hiding from real work, or taking a large bonus in a year you’re laying off workers to meet the budget. Hierarchy today sure does need a fresh take. It’s about ensuring wisdom and perspective are built into the process of growing a great company. A large organization needs seasoned leadership to steer off the rocks, as much as it needs unbridled ideation to see possibility and opportunity. Perhaps Zappos gets close to the concept of modern hierarchy, by re-naming it “Holocracy” and working to build a social system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed through self-organizing teams (rather than being vested in a management hierarchy.) And, this takes a very specific kind of cultural foundation that is rooted in trust, and agreement about what is really important (in the business and in relationships). Both of these will require a significant transformation in most workplaces. And, for leaders-in-power to realize their value is no longer in how high they climb or the size of their budget. Rather, a leaders’ value today is about benevolent influence: Can you genuinely build follower-ship among those you depend on?  Can you win the hearts of your employees and customers, so they will move mountains to make you successful?

Myth #4: Working on culture = Having a great culture.

It’s like reengineering in the 90’s: Everyone talks about it and says they’re doing it, but implementing a program doesn’t equate to the intended result. Culture is the enabler of any great company. And yet, there are still plenty of unhealthy behaviors in any of the Top 10 Great Workplaces, whether it’s Forbes or your local city.

If you want to leave a legacy, focus on teaching people to honor their commitments, get along, collaborate with each other, and be better without making someone wrong.

In the end, those qualities define a great workplace more than any posters, t-shirts, or consultant case study.

Myth #5:  People resist change.

Really?  30 years ago, the phone was tethered to a cord on your kitchen counter and computers were stand-alone (un-networked) beasts that required physical presence at your desk.

People don’t resist change, they resist BEING changed. (Peter Senge’s timeless wisdom.)  Especially when that change is being “sold” as something better for The Company when in reality, it’s really about putting more money in the pockets of executives and shareholders. I’m not suggesting this agenda is wrong – however, the reality is that most of the ways change is implemented in the workplace are never going to inspire engagement from the people who perform the work.

If you want better change results, start with a compelling reason WHY the people you need to implement the change, should want it.  Ground Zero for change (of any scale) is “Ask Them.” Unless you can implement the change yourself, your first step is to create a true story of how this change adds value to their work or life. And, if you’ve done that and change is still not taking hold, look for subtle (or obvious) signs of hypocrisy in what leaders are saying versus doing. Usually the answer lives in that chasm.

Myth #6:  HR is responsible for culture.

I know you know this is a myth. And, 90% of the outreaches I receive for my culture work come from HR. The CEO automatically hands off the culture responsibility to this part of the organization (rightly so, on some levels.)  However, culture is ALWAYS, first-and-foremost, the responsibility of the top leadership.  HR can and should be a partner in supporting the embedding of the systems that support the desired culture, but they cannot lead the journey. (You know why.) The culture will reflect its leaders, period. Assigning culture change to HR is the kiss of death! I have been on the listening end of more than one frustrated HR executive who genuinely supports their company’s culture change but has no idea how to manage a CEO’s unwillingness to make time for it personally. To help leaders see they have to “Go First”:  Humbly make visible changes in their leadership, before rolling out widespread promises and programs designed to support cultural change.

Myth #7: Hiring top talent is essential to competitive advantage.

The real path to competitive advantage in any business – whether mom-and-pop or Fortune 10 – is choosing the right people for your business. Not every company can afford (or needs) the top echelon of talent in their industry. (Enterprise Rental Car has built a solid niche in their industry by consciously choosing college graduates that don’t have the highest GPA’s.)

In fact, if you hire the best and brightest and have no plan or structure in place to grow them, you’ll end up in a lose-lose situation. They won’t be happy and you will see an undertone of restless energy in the teams they live on. Being really clear about your hiring strategy, WHO will “fit” into the culture you have today (not the one you want to have) is about understanding people as people, not talent. If you haven’t learned Psych 101 as a CEO, time for a crash course.

If culture change is on the agenda for your company (or you prefer to think of it as building a great culture, which is even better), beware slick approaches masquerading as culture change. The culture of a company is deeply rooted in the values (as practiced) by leaders.

It is an awesome intention, that of making culture visible and conscious, but culture is a collective process of collective habits. It takes a steady, patient leader who understands that people don’t change simply because we declared it so.

People change when they see those they admire, practicing behaviors they believe in. (right or wrong.)


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.