Often (too often), corporate culture turns toxic and entrenches itself so deeply that the organization can no longer serve its purpose effectively. This usually initiates the most painful form of change management. You’re the new kid on the block, new C-suite or director or someone else with some ability to make changes to policy and employee communications standards – maybe you were even hired specifically to do that. What do you do about it? Bear with me for a brief history lesson.
Bertold Brecht and East Berlin
In 1953, the people of East Berlin rose up against the Soviet occupation and the East German regime it supported. It lasted a day, and then, it was put down with some violence. The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem about it called The Solution (Die Lösung).
After the uprising of June 17th
The Secretary of the Authors’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Which said that the people
Had forfeited the government’s confidence
And could only win it back
By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it
Be simpler in that case if the government
Dissolved the people and
Now, in this case, it was the communist system that was toxic, and it took a while for it to go. When it did, the people were still there.
Yes, you can easily fix a toxic culture by simply replacing everyone, but as Brecht pointed out, that isn’t terribly realistic. There probably are some people whose departure might help immensely and cost very little, but the whole idea of a cohesive corporate culture is that everyone shares in it to some degree. So when a culture is toxic, even the best employees are affected. By all means, get rid of the real problem individuals, but what to do about the rest?
Define the Goal
As I learned in politics, you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and likewise, you can’t change bad behavior unless you have a specific good behavior in mind as a replacement. That is, if you don’t know how you want the culture to look, more specifically, how employee communications should function, then, there is no way of achieving any real change. So, rule one is define the goal. If the problem is mass lateness, the goal of punctuality is easily defined. Get to work on time.
Next, the defined objective needs to be communicated to the employees. Quite simply, you need to tell them what you want. Often, people are oblivious to the issue. Suppose work is to begin at 9 am. I get there every day at 9:15. It is entirely plausible that I won’t notice the problem if I am constantly the first person to show up. If the trickle of arrivals lasts until 9:30, I may very well believe I am doing what am supposed to. If I am the last person to arrive when I get in at 9:15, perhaps I will notice it all on my own. You can’t take the chance that I will, however. Tell your employees what you want.
Or better yet, show them. Turn up to meetings on time and start them right away. Exhibit the behavior you want them to emulate. You can’t reasonably expect people to do what you won’t do yourself.
Ambassadors of Change
You can’t do this alone, and I guarantee you will fail if you try. The term “ambassadors of change” may be overused, but you are going to need help. Call them whatever you want, but recruit them right away.
If you can get just one in twenty people on your side to actively and openly display the behavior you want, it will build to two and three in twenty fairly quickly. After that, it’s just a matter of time. In my experience, there is a first tier of people who are driven crazy by the toxic behavior and they will be on board right away. But there is also a second tier of people who would act but they don’t want to be the first to do anything. Not everyone wants to be a pioneer. Show them that you and the first tier are serious, and get some easy wins, and they will come along. The momentum will continue increasing.
Marketing the Change
It’s kind of ridiculous that companies have massive marketing budgets and employ numerous people to influence the behavior of outsiders but spend almost no time and energy on influencing the people who make up the organization. Support your change management efforts with a genuine marketing campaign. If you would send mailers and email, do focus groups, invite clients to meetings and hold focus groups to get people to buy your widgets, then you should do the exact same things to get the people who produce your widgets to embrace the culture you are working to create.
For instance, we offer campaigns involving digital postcards. We do all the work for you. Just send us your branding guidelines, colors, messaging and any resources you want linked in your digital postcard. We’ll provide distribution options, best practices and links to tracking reports.