Culture Change = values + talent + behaviours + purpose

The above equation looks right as we see it, as well as appearing deceptively simple. There is a lot hidden beneath each of those words and, as is often said, the devil is in the detail.

To make sense of this, let’s have a look at the terms individually:

  • Culture: the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
  • Values: principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life.
  • Talent: natural aptitude or skill.
  • Behaviour: the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.
  • Purpose: a person’s sense of resolve or determination.

If we take these definitions then, the equation now looks a bit more like this:

The ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular organisation are based on their principles or standards of behaviour, their natural aptitudes or skills, the way in which they conduct themselves and their resolve or determination to stick to these, even when this is difficult.

There, that feels a bit more complete. And a lot more complex. It’s easy to think of organisational culture as something that can be changed through programmes focussed on simply rolling out a new way of being or in telling others to conform to behaviour frameworks or values systems. But let me ask you this: the last time someone told you how to behave, how determined were you to stick to what they said? How much purpose did a parent-child approach to culture change instil in you?

My guess is not very much. What is missing in this approach is your ability to exercise your self-efficacy: your right to choose who to be and how to do what you do.

I’m a Gestaltist, by inclination and training, and Gestalt psychology has an outlook on any form of change that is wrapped up neatly in the appropriately named Paradoxical Theory of Change. Arnold Beisser, in his 1970 paper “The Paradoxical Theory of Change” summed it up by saying that “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not”. Change does not occur through coercion and so in order to facilitate change we need to reject the role of change agent and enable people to take time to understand who and what they currently are.

If you agree with me and accept this, then the implications of this for any change programme are important. It means that time needs to be built in for individuals to understand their current position and what is being asked of them. It means that sometimes they will choose themselves to come along but that never can they be compelled to do so.

I guess what I am essentially saying is that an organisational culture cannot choose to change, but individuals can. And it is only through focussing time, effort and development activities at the individual level that the people who generate a culture can become aware of how they are operating now, impacting those around them and make the decision to come along for themselves.

If what they see is not compelling enough to prompt them to change of their own volition, then in all likelihood they won’t. This means that before they are engaged to change, work must be done to share an understanding of the purpose of what they’re being asked to do. Bring in the ‘Golden Thread’.

The CIPD carried out research in 2012 in the UK that showed that having a strong sense of organisational purpose that is shared by all employees, and often beyond, to include external stakeholders, is linked with engagement, satisfaction and sustainable business performance. And that this shared purpose is the ‘golden thread’ to which an organisation’s strategy should be aligned.

Makes perfect sense and agrees nicely with all sorts of other research and reports into the same area. It also gives us a definition and affect for fulfilling the last part of our equation.

Culture = values + talent + behaviours + purpose

Yes, it does. But getting the four things on the right hand side of the equation together involves a lot sustained effort around a consistent theme. It is only through this approach that people are able to match their personal values with those of their organisation, use their natural talents to adapt their behaviours and have a strong enough purpose to maintain a new approach in the face of adversity.

Or they can decide it’s not for them, and we need to recognise that this ability to choose is something that can never be taken away in order for those who decide to change to be able to do so.