Exploring the theme of ‘culture’, Changeboard’s latest roundtable dinner, in partnership with Capita, considered how leaders can get better at seeing their own company culture with fresh eyes.
Guest speaker – academic, philosopher and management consultant – Robert Rowland Smith began by asking attending HR directors to consider the meaning of culture, moving on to discuss different definitions and ways in which culture can be influenced or changed.
“Because most of you work in the ‘culture bit’ of organisations, you might automatically think of culture in an organisational context,” he pointed out.
“I want to remind you of the richness of the word. Culture has all sorts of meanings from a biological culture to having refinement. But the origin of the word is to do with cultivation in a very tangible sense. Think agriculture or couture: something that is cultivated. Which goes to this sense that maybe it’s something that’s not natural.”
Definition of culture
He explained the two schools of thought around the definition of culture (“one says that culture arises from everything else that you do, it’s an effect, not a cause; the other says 'set culture and then everything manifests the culture'”), providing a political context by comparing Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in China with TS Eliot’s Notes towards the definition of culture.
“Mao Zedong, on the left of politics believed that you could manufacture culture and impose it,” said Rowland Smith. “For China to become great, in his view, it had to become homogeneous.
“By contrast, TS Eliot wrote that ‘culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at’. For Eliot, culture’s almost like a compost,” said Rowland Smith. “You put lots of elements into it, they rot down and it becomes richer. But as a right-wing thinker about culture, he said that once your culture has built up, you keep it; you pull up the drawbridge. It got rich by diversity, but if we add in anything more it will dilute it.
“Eliot’s theory is that cultures get rich through repetition; by doing the same things again and again and again,” he added. “In a corporate setting it might be very basic things such as having an annual Christmas lunch. “If you want to create a culture, repeat things.”
Strength in culture
If the underlying thought is that culture is an asset – that there is strength in culture – does the strength lie in diversity or conformity?” asked Rowland Smith.
Referencing ‘cult-like cultures’, within which “whoever you speak to, everyone says the same thing”, he suggested that HR leaders were likely to be divided on this issue. “We want everybody giving the same messages, being brand ambassadors, speaking the same language, using the buzzwords in line with the comms. But you can argue it both ways,” he said.
“I think there is often encouragement, at corporate level, to adopt the party line, to be a good corporate citizen and deliver the message in accordance with it,” commented a participant from Capita, while another delegate added that today’s leaders have grown up in the “conformity culture”.
Culture at its best is an additive process, argued a third participant. “In our organisation, we hire for ‘culture add’, not ‘culture fit’. It’s an increasingly common way of framing it. It’s about how all the (micro) cultures interact with each other and the wider culture.
“Cultures that are strong are human,” she added. “They have a humanity at their heart; they allow for local interpretation. They are not just imposed from the top. There’s a flexibility and fluidity about culture that is very human.”
Can you change your culture?
While cultures can change organically, it can be hard to change them proactively, stressed Rowland Smith. “They have their own energy.”
“Whenever somebody asks me ‘how do you change a culture?’, I say ‘change the leadership’", suggested one delegate.
“Culture can be changed by a leader, but generally speaking, cultures are more dominant than leaders,” replied Rowland Smith. “Leaders who are not strong can find themselves swallowed up by culture.
“For example, even if a particularly a powerful and charismatic leader finds themselves head of the British Army or the Catholic Church, it’s arguable that there will be so much history and accumulated practice within those institutions that they might be defeated by it.”
Delegates highlighted the BBC as an example of an organisation with a dominant culture, articulating the challenge of implementing change in the wake of the Savile crisis.
“From my experience of change programmes, they always focus on the future; where are we trying to get to,” said Rowland Smith. “The question ‘where have we come from?’ is almost never asked, and I think that’s a fundamental problem. Unless you respect the past, you’re always going to be constrained by it; it comes back in unconscious ways. The most successful change programmes are basically modifications of the past rather than radical innovations; they are adaptations, rather than something completely new,” he stressed.
The ABC model of changing workplace culture
Of course, before you can hope to change a culture, you have to understand it. When it comes to determining the culture of your own organisation, Rowland Smith recommends identifying its "artefacts, behaviours and creeds".
“Notice what artefacts there are within your organisation; for example, the annual Christmas lunch or the pictures and cuddly toys that people keep on their desks. Identify behaviours (everyone leaving at 5.01pm or not until the bosses leave); and the set of beliefs that people hold.
“Culture probably comes down to those three things. If you want a simple model to break down the elements of culture, the ABC model is one of many you can apply,” he said.