The First Steps to Transforming Work Culture

Changing workplace culture is never a revolution—at least, not if you want change that lasts. So if you’re focused on transforming your work culture as we move into the coming year, it’s important to know that it’s a process, not an overnight transformation. That’s an idea that makes many leaders uncomfortable; we like to think of ourselves as disruptive and courageous, able to flip a switch and inspire change. The reality is, particularly in a large organization, sudden changes often do more damage than good. It’s exceedingly difficult, and often a mistake, to aim for wholesale culture shifts overnight.

The benefits of a positive workplace culture are significant: greater productivity, lower turnover, good communication, and employees who are satisfied and happy. In a climate where many organizations aim to dominate their particular market and good talent can be scarce, leading a team that’s dedicated and energized is a powerful lure. If transforming your work culture is on your radar, here’s a look at first steps you can take to get started.

Turn to Customers and Front-Line Workers First

In larger companies, goals are generally set by the C-suite; someone with industry experience and access to analyst trends often sees an opportunity and the executives decide it’s time to grab it.

That top-down approach is sometimes successful, but it’s often more of a gamble than it needs to be. At worst, it creates blinders that can lead to failures: See Blockbuster, Nokia, and Borders.

The high-level perspective is important, but often misses early indications of problems, solutions, and trends. Instead, it’s the people at the front of the organization—your customers and the people who connect with them daily—who are best positioned to give the kind of feedback the business needs to stay healthy. Listening to your customers, front-line sales team and customer service representatives can provide valuable information that can lead to new ideas and potential revenue opportunities, help identify mistaken assumptions in your business model, or even change your understanding of market segments.

Make sure you get customer and front-line input before setting your goals, and then keep that group involved as you make and implement plans; and don’t forget to keep asking for their feedback along the way. All of this will help lower the risk of making bad decisions and go a long way toward not only keeping customers happy, but your team feeling like an integral part of the business building process.

Identify People Who Get Things Done

Effective leaders find people who make things happen; they recognize that there are change agents in every organization. While it’s often middle managers who lead cultural shifts, it isn’t always the people with “manager” in their titles.

Change agents prioritize curiosity, learning, and relationships. They empower others, embody the company’s values, and can interpret change at a human level. These are the people with the power to truly disrupt a company from the inside. Fgure out who they are and find out what you can do to help them.

Develop a Continuous Feedback Loop

One of the strongest ways to transform work culture is to simply pay attention. Instead of waiting for quarterly reports or annual reviews, create a continuous feedback loop that allows for constant testing, tuning, and re-tuning organizational vibe.

Instead of waiting for people to come to you with criticisms or kudos, go to them. Prove you are listening and find ways to create small victories that will provide information you need for big wins.

This approach also has the advantage of giving you early warning signs when work culture takes a downturn. Are people working long hours but productivity is suffering? Find out what’s at the root of the problem. This may mean finding small, smart practices to encourage creativity, revisit milestones, or talk to a manager about resetting expectations. Don’t let middle managers—and the people below them—feel that the status quo is unchangeable. Show them that they count, and that their voices and opinions matter. Take input seriously, then use it.

Making incremental change starts a wave of work culture transformation across an organization. It isn’t an abrupt flip, but a signal that positive changes are in the works. Leaders must monitor these steps and make sure the organization keeps moving forward. By doing so, you’ll build momentum that will eventually transform how your organization exists.

What do you think? Have you experienced leading or working in an organization focused on transforming work culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and any suggestions you have based on your experiences that I might have missed.

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