Many organizations are facing an unprecedented challenge to the way they operate and how they do business as a result of the COVID19 pandemic around the globe.  What is the impact on organizational culture when organisations are crisis and response mode?  Paradoxically the culture you are trying to create will be your biggest asset in a crisis, yet is harder to implement if you are part way through your change programme

I’ve been reflecting that for some organizations who are early in their cultural change program the challenges with responding to COVID19 are particularly acute.  How do they maintain momentum on what is a long-term strategic change programme of work when the presenting issue they face is one requiring an immediate and urgent response?

If we think of cultural change as a traditional change process, we move through the different phases of change until you reach that end state where your change has become internalized throughout the organisation and is now just “the way we do things around here”.  The danger in cultural change programmes is always that momentum drops as the focus moves to immediate actions and responding to the crisis of how to preserve your business and meet the needs of your customers and stakeholders.  What happens when you are trying to embed a new culture or new set of behavioral norms?  What tends to happen is a drift back to those behaviors and actions that have served you well so well the past.  These behaviors may not be part of the organizational culture you are trying to build and create, in fact they may be the complete opposite.  However, they do “get things done”.  We slip back to what is comfortable and has served us well in the past.  It could be an obsession with getting results at any cost, or perhaps being overly consultative that delays our decision making.

There are some variables that further complicate the present situation.

  • There is less feedback for staff and leaders as most people are working from home, so we don’t have the same frequency of contact to give either corrective or reinforcing feedback.
  • There is incredible pressure and stress on leaders to perform, especially for those organizations directly involved involved in covert 19 response. Where they are working long hours, testing their personal resilience and to borrow a phrase from The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner there is probably not so much “Encouraging the Heart” or “Enabling Others to Act” going on at the moment.
  • A “just get it done” approach, where there is a tendency to prioritise the outcome above the way we achieve it.

So, what can you do to maintain momentum in your cultural change programme and create the culture you want but don’t quite have yet?

Well, there are a couple of things come to mind;

  1. Be aware that there may be “behavioral regression” and a drift back to behaviours you don’t want. Often people will be quite forgiving if they know you are trying but have lapsed, so communication becomes even more critical.
  2. Admit when you’ve got it wrong, when you’ve taken shortcuts, when you have focused on task completion at the expense of cultural alignment
  3. Take time to breathe and ask yourself “is the action that  I am going to take consistent with the culture I want to build”
  4. Celebrate the stories and examples of the new culture in action. The stories become stronger the more they are shared.
  5. Make constant references to the application of the new culture. Try and frame everything you do in terms of the new values and Behaviours you are trying to create.
  6. Involve people and seek feedback on how it is going