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Influencing behaviour to shape corporate culture

Jack Smith, Summer Sensation, Flowers Gallery

You might not be able to dictate corporate culture, says Ron Ashkenas on his blog, but he insists you can influence it.

Ashkenas shares an old joke about a CEO who attends a presentation on corporate culture and then asks his head of HR to "get me one of those things".

The author comments: "Of course it sounds ludicrous – but like most jokes, this story is based in truth. Many organisations treat the creation, maintenance, and periodic updating of their cultures in a cavalier manner. Either they pay lip service to the kind of culture they want, but don't do much about it – or worse, ignore culture completely."

He adds: "Most senior managers struggle with culture because it's so difficult to define. Even less tangible than a 'soft' concept, culture is more like a cloud: you know it's there, but it's nearly impossible to grasp."

So given this, how can leaders get people to think and act the way they want them to? Ashkenas says they can't. He maintains that "culture is not a 'goal' to be mandated, but the outcome of a collective set of behaviours". Nevertheless, leaders can shape the culture of their companies by influencing those behaviours in several ways. The author advocates a three-step approach, as follows:

1) Convey your vision of a winning culture. Ashkenas says: "If you want to be more than just the caretaker of an existing culture, then you need to define your aspirations. What will be different, and how will it make a difference for the success of your organisation? More specifically what are the most critical behaviours that will characterise the culture you want to create?"

2) Demonstrate how new cultural behaviours can advance the business. Work with your team to apply the behaviours to a specific project that needs acceleration or improvement. Set the team a specific stretch goal over a limited period while making a clear effort to bring the new culture to life.

3) Put teeth into the new culture by integrating it into HR processes. Ashkenas explains: "People tend to do what's measured and rewarded. So a third step for building a new culture is to use the desired behaviours as criteria for hiring, promoting, rewarding, and developing people."

You Can't Dictate Culture – But You Can Influence It
Ron Ashkenas