Changing business culture, don’t start in the same place.

28th July 2016

Business culture change need not be expensive or prescriptive.

Patrons of the Beer Dispensary in Brighton will be familiar with this gentle (and free) behavioural nudge.

By contrast, big businesses often take the traditional, expensive, prescriptive ‘This Way’ route to business culture change. It’s top down, doesn’t really work, and remains stubbornly popular. Senior management in big businesses like to use familiar approaches to deal with new challenges. The Einstein quote – that you don’t solve new problems with familiar ways of thinking – seems to have eluded them.

Small and medium sized businesses tend to take a more entrepreneurial, responsive, in-the-moment approach to culture change. The focus is often bottom-up rather than top-down, behavioural rather than ‘cultural’ change. This approach is more effective and adaptable, and it keeps knowledge in the business, rather than in the heads of expensive external consultants.

How it works

Reviewing how the business works through a behavioural lens allows you to end up with lists of ‘what we need to do more of’, ‘what we need to do less of’, and ‘what we need to do differently’.

In terms of ‘what we need to do less of’, these will usually be behaviours that can easily be avoided. The kind of things which should never happen in the first place, if only management weren’t so busy, if only they didn’t have so many distractions, if only things didn’t keep changing so quickly. If only.

Low hanging fruit

Here are some everyday behaviours which are easy to spot, easy to fix, and will change the culture of your business. Consider how many of these you hear, see or use in your business, and how often.

  1. ‘I don’t have time’. An obvious lie. What people mean when they say this is ‘my work is more important than yours’. Does that fit your culture?
  2. ‘Do it this way’. Imposing your will on others may save you time, but it creates dependency. People on the receiving end don’t develop, because they don’t need to. They rely on you instead.
  3. ‘I don’t do detail’. AKA abrogating (though you might hear people say ‘delegating’) responsibility. Remember the quote from the Hagakure, ‘Matters of great concern should be treated lightly [and] matters of small concern should be treated seriously’. It’s the little things that end up causing the biggest problems, because we ignore them, minimise them and defer them until they overwhelm us.
  4. Using your smartphone in meetings. The people who do it call it ‘multitasking’. Everyone else sees it as active disengagement. It’s insulting, condescending and undisciplined.
  5. Not looking at people when they are talking. What these people are actually doing is telling their colleague(s) that they don’t take them seriously and that their opinion doesn’t count. This is a passive form of bullying.
  6. Being late for internal meetings. This is an indirect exercise of power. It shows a deliberate lack of respect for your colleagues. You are demonstrating to them that you’re above the law.
  7. Talking over people. The people who do this tend to do it to everyone, because it has become an unconscious habit for them. It’s insidious. It spreads like a virus and rots corporate culture from the inside out. 
Making a start

Try banning three of these behaviours at work for a month, or pick some of your own.

Set up a ‘no blame’ culture for these behaviours, meaning that the most junior employee can call out anyone in the business in the act of a banned behaviour.

Reward the genuine calls.

Make it fun.

Chances are that out of the three, one will work really well, one will work OK and one will not really change at all. But it’s a start, and that’s all you need. ‘Start small, then build’ is how Edgar Schein described the Chinese approach to behaviour change, and it works. One change allows others to happen, then it snowballs.

You don’t need an MBA or a huge budget for expensive management consultants. Go with what you know. Bad behaviours quickly become bad habits, which in turn become toxic culture. So save time and money, and regain control over your culture. Start with the little things.


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