Managers’ Style Stifles Culture Change

Workplace culture has always been a complicated thing to define. It is often thought of as the values that radiate from an organization’s office environment, or “the way we do things around here,” whether it’s how people communicate, the way vacation time is allocated, or the dress code.

But when it comes to attempting to change an organization’s culture — something human resources professionals are often tasked to do — management style is the biggest thing standing in the way.

That’s the message taken from a recent “Workforce Culture” survey from Human Capital Media Advisory Group, the research arm of Talent Managementmagazine. In the survey, 73 percent of respondents cited management style as the biggest barrier to organizational culture change. Budgetary constraints, selected by just 47 percent of respondents, were the next biggest barrier (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Barriers to Culture Change
Figure 1: Barriers to Cultural Change
source: HCM Advisory Group, 2014

The survey, conducted in July and August, included 170 HR practitioners from companies of varying sizes and industries.

The issue of culture change is becoming a bigger part of the HR professional’s job. When asked if their department had been tasked with changing workplace culture, nearly 67 percent of HR professionals answered affirmatively. Furthermore, when asked how to define workplace culture, 85 percent of respondents said, “how we do things around here,” while nearly 80 percent said mission and values. About 67 percent said culture was defined by work environment.

A majority (83 percent) said improving employee management is a top priority for changing workplace culture (Figure 2). That’s followed by a need to increase collaboration (53 percent) and a need to improve employee retention (52 percent), according to the survey.

Figure 2: What's Motivating Culture Change
Figure 2: What's Motivating Culture change
source: HCM Advisory Group, 2014

Among the lowest-rated factors to change culture: a merger or acquisition (14 percent), compliance and risk management (18 percent) and a need to improve customer experience (30 percent), the survey showed.

In terms of how executives can better foster organizational culture, comments included in the survey suggest a greater need for partnership between HR and the C-suite. “There is a tendency to let HR get on with it and executives divorce themselves from the process,” wrote one respondent in the comments section. “They need to be part and parcel of it [culture change] and be seen to be spearheading the culture.”

Initiating Culture Change

Leaders play a significant role in transforming work culture, according to the survey. In terms of how senior leaders are currently involved in culture change, 75 percent of HR practitioner respondents said they set strategy, while 71 percent said senior leaders establish a clear vision for culture, and 68 percent said they model mission and values by example.

A much smaller percentage of respondents said senior leaders oversee critical areas (42 percent), participate in training (37 percent) or set stretch goals (28 percent), the survey showed.

Seldom do organizations have a singular workplace culture, according to the survey. About 44 percent of respondents said workplace culture varies by business unit, while 24 percent said it varies by geographic location and 22 percent said by job role. Just 10 percent said workplace culture varies by career level.

Even though workplace culture is seemingly a bigger part of HR professionals’ role, 32 percent of firms are still in the initial stages of defining what their workplace culture is and what it means for the organization (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Culture Change Stages
Figure 3: Culture Change Stages
source: HCM Advisory Group, 2014

Most firms said they have tried to implement culture change initiatives. Indeed, just under 9 percent of HR respondents in the survey said they haven’t begun a culture change initiative. On the other hand, only 23 percent said they have successfully implemented one or more initiatives to change workplace culture.

Changing workplace culture takes time. According to the survey, 41 percent of respondents said it took them a year or two to change their organization’s culture, while 8 percent said it took under a year. Roughly 28 percent said it took their organizations three to four years to change workplace culture.

Additionally, most HR practitioners surveyed said they’ve either been slightly successful or moderately successful at changing their organization’s culture. Meanwhile, just 14 percent said they have been extremely successful, and 18 percent said they have not, according to the survey.

Organizational collaboration is viewed as an essential means of influencing workplace culture, research suggests.  Sixty-two percent of HR professionals use cross-functional groups (Figure 4). Other common methods, according to the survey, were public recognition of collaborative accomplishments (53 percent), embedding collaborative behaviors into competency values (39 percent) and internal idea generation events (34 percent).

Figure 4: Programming to Promote Collaboration
Figure 4: Programming to Promote Collaboration
Source: HCM Advisory Group, 2014

Internal conferences (23 percent), group performance incentives (25 percent) and integrating “how” measures into performance management (27 percent) were among the least-offered programming initiatives used to foster workplace collaboration.