In my first position as an executive director, I was fortunate to have a wise and effective predecessor. In my second, I founded a brand-new organization. So, it wasn’t until I became an interim executive director – a position that I have now held three times – that I had any reason to think about how to change a culture.
What is organizational culture? In a 2016 article, Katzenbach, Oelschlegel, and Thomas describe it as “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.”
Culture matters. A problematic culture can hold an organization back from fully achieving its mission. Failure to address culture problems can affect staff retention and stand in the way of achieving key program or policy changes.
Over time, I’ve found that some types of culture problems are relatively easy for new leaders to address with modeling and limit-setting. Coming into organizations with a culture of disrespect, leaders can turn this around relatively rapidly by never yelling at, belittling, or berating those around them – and by refusing to tolerate this type of behavior from staff or board members. Coming into organizations with a culture of over-work, leaders can turn this around fairly quickly by taking vacations, staying home when sick, and setting reasonable limits on their own work and email hours – and by giving staff permission and encouragement to do the same.
But some culture problems are both hard to spot early on and much more resistant to change.
Recently, I’ve spent time reading about organizational culture in hopes of finding guidance about tackling particularly resistant culture problems. My number one take-away is that this is tough work! Nothing I read offered a clear and compelling answer to this conundrum. But a few intriguing themes did jump out:
1. Resistance may be more about fear and loss than about the change itself. Understand and acknowledge what people fear – and especially, what they fear losing. Clearly demonstrate respect for precious things that are healthy parts of the organization’s culture. This may reduce resistance to necessary changes in other areas.
2. Focus on changing behavior rather than changing attitudes. Keep the focus on a small number of behaviors – including those that seem innocuous but may be precursors of more problematic behavior. Attitude change will follow behavior change.
3. Even small, short-term successes matter. It makes a difference to demonstrate impact as quickly as possible. Try small pilot efforts and measure their outcomes. Then, celebrate any positive results.
When embarking on an interim E.D. assignment, I begin by individually interviewing staff and board members. I want to understand their roles, their professional goals and interests, and how they assess the state of their organization. Now, after reading more about organizational culture, I know that next time I sit down for these conversations, I’ll be posing some new questions. I’ll be asking each person how they would describe their organization’s culture – and what they hope to preserve or change about it. I’ll be asking not only about their hopes, but also about their fears.
If I run into culture problems along the way, I’ll be experimenting with the three approaches above, to see if they make a difference. Stay tuned.