The Anatomy of Organizational Culture Change: A Small Toolbox for Big Change


As most business leaders and managers know, organization culture is real, yet it is hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, and thus how to engender it in the workplace day to day. It has always been my premise that culture happens whether we are intentional about it or not, so why not be strategic about the practices that set the conditions for a positive, collaborative and innovative culture? In past articles I have exposed the various skills and practices that are paramount to developing a strong and vibrant culture. In this article I will put them all together in a top level view so you can see the trajectory and method that I use in my work, what I call the anatomy of organizational culture change.

I view progress as both linear and concurrent. The linear piece means that my main concepts are broken out and discussed week after week, one after another. The concurrent piece is that even though I parse the skills out, they all work together, in tandem, like pieces of cloth working together to make a quilt. In the beginning you need to work on each square of fabric. We begin week after week to sew the concepts and skills together to make a portion of a quilt in real time. But when they are put together they make something very useful, a whole that is a sum of its parts. In my estimation, it even goes beyond the sum of the parts, because when all of the pieces of culture change are working together, they forge an energy that taps into the collective wisdom of the group. The group itself becomes more intelligent because of each person’s commitment and practice of the attitudes and skills that make a culture highly functional. The World Famous Pike Place Fish Market is a great example of a real-time illustration of this concept.

The skills can be taught one-on-one or with a group, or both. You need to figure out the frequency of meetings that you can have and make a commitment to see them through. In the age of busy-ness, it’s my view that we need to resist being in the weeds and spend some time together learning and thinking strategically about how a team or group can function better, more optimally. So let’s say you decide on weekly or bi-weekly meetings, this method will fit into any time period, although I like to not go longer than monthly just for memory sake. Each meeting will then have an agenda, which includes a new concept or skill (content piece). Each agenda will begin with a check-in to how the past concept has been implemented. I also build in time in every agenda for appreciation (specific articulated ways we positively impact each other) and relationship building (getting to know each other as humans beyond roles) because they are the practices that engender trust, the glue that binds our commitment to each other to stay the course. So in a nutshell each agenda has a check-in, appreciations, relationship building, a new content piece or two, and then a closing question (such as “what are you taking away from today’s meeting?).

The first content piece to focus on is trigger management. When people work together there is propensity for negativity and dysfunction for a variety of reasons. We need to help people understand their ‘negative’ emotions and learn how to manage them more effectively for the result they are trying to achieve. This is not a case of just thinking positively. It validates that negative times happen, and one of our strategies for dealing with our negativity is to perpetuate negativity into the culture. This is understandable because energy has to go somewhere, but it can lead to poison all around. I call these reactions ‘negative team behaviors’, and they don’t actually solve the problem. It may feel good to give someone a dose of negativity, and you may even feel justified or vindicated for it, but it rarely leads to high morale and sustained change.

The next component I move into is feedback skills. The second meeting will be devoted to giving feedback and the third about receiving feedback and defensiveness that can happen. Feedback is the premier communication tool for collaboration and innovation in a business. I teach what feedback is, why it’s important and then how to do it. I offer a roadmap to give people a template to plug their own unique situations in to take some of the mystique out of how to do it. Of course intention is paramount to feedback. I talk about our intention to care about our fellow employee’s (or manager, owner) success and growth. 99% of the people that I have worked with have reported caring about each other, even if there is a struggle happening. This is important to remember and belies my perspective that feedback is a gift. We get to deliver it to build someone up rather than tear down, and we get to receive it well, hearing the nuggets of our growth and not taking it personally.

In the fourth session I bring awareness to intention and impact. I use a matrix to illuminate the different possibilities of positive and negative intention which could lead to positive and negative impacts. We are always impacting people, hopefully for the positive. When challenges happen in the workplace sometimes there is a mismatch between positive intention and negative impact. One example could be honestly wanting to give someone feedback to help them grow, and the person taking offense to it and taking it personally.

In the fifth session I explore listening skills, namely body language, paraphrasing and our ability to be curious and ask questions. True listening means that we are not of two minds, such as when we are multi-tasking or distracted. It is a gift to give someone our un-abided attention. It feels good and the other person feels valued. I also talk about upholding boundaries when you truly can’t take the time to listen. Saying something like “can you come back in 15 minutes so I can finish this report?” is much better than continuing typing, saying ‘uh-huh’, only getting snippets of information and being somewhat tuned out.

The last three sessions are devoted to team building exercises and concepts. I rarely start off my work with teams with team building games/exercises, because a team needs to learn the aforementioned skills and get some traction with practice so they can communicate better and feel more like a team. Then team building activities help them to have fun and integrate the skills in a tactile way. Some exercises I use are build-a-word, toxic waste dump, synergy, puzzling puzzles, helium stick and back-to-back drawing game. You can Google these or contact me for more information.

So that’s it in a nutshell. I use specific worksheets and models for most of the content pieces, which I can share in a different post. Just remember that someone needs to champion this work. It could be an owner, another executive, a manager or a coach. Whoever takes up the torch of building a positive culture needs to make sure to be diligent and stay the course. This approach will take time, but the payoffs can be amazing for the people and the business success.