Learning and Development: Don’t Fight the Culture

By Emerson Client Director, Kenny Simon

Culture written on wood blocks

Ever heard…

“Not so fast! That might have been ok elsewhere, but we do things a bit differently on this team.”

Or what about…

“I know what the documented process says, but in reality, it’s not done that way at all.”

But surely you’ve heard…

“If you are going to live in this house, you will obey my rules – it’s my way, or [you insert the rest here].”

These colloquialisms are a part of our lives. In one way or another, they govern how we behave on a team, in a department, and even in our family lives. They deliver information about how we should behave socially, coexist, and get things done the “right” way. Or, as my 92–year–old grandmother would say, “Doing the thing the way it is supposed to be done, when it’s supposed to be done, using the right stuff to get it done.”

These phrases reveal culture. (OH NO….the “C” word!) Culture exists in any field of human endeavor involving two or more people. It is the way things work, regardless of what is formally documented or stated when “big brother” is watching. In the workplace, culture governs day–to–day business operations. Culture is rarely documented, but it affects every decision made. Once, when I asked a client about a practice that confused me, he said, “It’s just the way things get done around here.” That’s as good as any other definition of culture.

In my time as a learning and development consultant, I’ve become painfully aware that culture – the unwritten rules of order – can enhance or destroy the best laid plans.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Mark Fields, former CEO of Ford Motor Company

Once upon a time in a conference room far, far way, a client felt the company culture was getting in the way of their change project. He asked our group of experienced change management and learning professionals, “How do you change culture?” A colleague wisely answered “Slowly, and almost never.”

It’s a common question. The client reasoned that a strategic communications approach and well–placed learning interventions mixed in the corporate cauldron would miraculously change the very nature of the organization.

Actually, it works the other way around. Culture is “baked in” to the organization. Treat it as a fixed and powerful force. It should be considered when designing every piece of the solution or the operation is bound to fail. Don’t try to change the organization’s culture. Understand it, and then harness its power for your initiative.

As we sat with the client, my team talked about our experiences with organizational culture. We reset the client’s expectations about culture change and the limitations of plans that do not consider culture. But we also helped them understand they had a massive force at their disposal – a force that could help get them to their goal.

For example: their change project required new employee behaviors. New employee behaviors mean training, right? But training, in a vacuum, rarely achieves true behavior change. We talked with the client about the need to focus attention on the behaviors they needed and use their culture as a catalyst. We helped them ask themselves, “What is the behavior we need to see after this training? How can we leverage our culture to help us get there?”

Here are some ways you can use your culture to get the behaviors your organization needs:

Acceptance

You know what they say: acceptance is the first step to change. Accept your reality. Look at the hard truths in your organization and examine the culture. Culture is what attracted most of the people working there today, so it’s not a bad thing, but you have to understand it. What are the unspoken rules? How do people talk and interact with each other? What behaviors are being rewarded? Those are the ones that are aligned to your culture. Beyond self-examination, there are more formal ways to determine culture; consider a thorough assessment. You have to know your culture before you can use it.

Engagement

Now that you have assessed your culture, determine the best way to engage the organization. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What type of organizational culture do you have? Rebels? Armies of one? One big family? Cooperation and synergy? A band of brothers who have each other’s backs? Creators and innovators? Risk–takers, encouraged to try and fail?
  • Who are your employees? How much do demographics and characteristics (like gender, age, and background) drive the preferred learning approaches of the organization? For example, does the age of the majority influence the learning approach? As we try to engage the work force, what types of things will work and won’t work?
  • How many people are you targeting? Does your organization have the infrastructure to support multi–faceted approaches, or are you limited to a few bells and whistles and a lo–fi approach to engage the audience?
  • How are people rewarded for in the organization? What leads to high evaluations, promotions, more money, and social/political clout? In other words, what can we use – based on our culture – to facilitate engagement?

These questions are easy to answer for some organizations and difficult for others. Regardless, the effort is worthwhile. You must answer these questions if you want to engage successfully.

Execution

So far, you have done all the right things – you understand your true culture, have a plan for how to engage the organization, and now you need to execute. Your plan should be a multi–level, multi–phased, and supportive approach.

  • Multi-level means stakeholders at all levels of are aware and on message. How are all levels of the organization helping to drive the engagement and support? You will need top-down (leader-driven) and a bottom–up (grass roots) approach that is aligned with your culture.
  • Multi-phased simply implies you need to allow the organization to warm up to each part of the change. Total immersion in a new way of working is risky – if you ask folks to jump into the deep end, you might lose a few. I recommend using a tried and true approach – formats, words, and platforms everyone is comfortable with – and use it to deliver each component. The idea is to minimize the new stuff and make it all feel culturally right. Wrap the familiar around the new and it will go down much easier.
  • Supportive means intentionally building an environment that helps employees succeed. Along with traditional performance support material like job aids, stakeholders and leaders must continue to “talk the talk and walk the walk.” Create touch points for learners to see the importance of what they are doing – the connection to the success of the team and the organization. Reward behaviors that are critical to the program’s success. ALL of these things should be designed through the lens of your culture.

There is a lot more advice I could have covered, but this is a blog, not a book! Remember a few things the next time you have a discussion about training for a new initiative and someone brings up the “C” word. Training counter to your culture never gets the results you want. Culture is powerful and should be exploited to your solution’s benefit, not ignored or resisted.

“Now get back out there and do it the way we taught ya,” the coach said, with optimism in his voice. “Atta boy!”

Kenny Simon is an L&D Director with Emerson Human Capital, as well as a sports junkie who learned about culture through professional experience and old ball coaches who were often verbally abusive. (But he isn’t bitter or anything…)

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