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Maintaining culture during transitional periods

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HRD Connect and Pedro Angulo take a look at how to keep workplace culture stable during complicated periods of change.

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Maintaining a healthy workplace culture has never been more significant for organizations. But with the world of business in constant flux, how can cultural integrity be maintained? With the expert help of Pedro Angulo, Head of Leadership Development, AIB, HRD Connect took a closer look at how this can be achieved.

A company’s culture is not merely its brand goals or the environment in which its employees work. Rather, it acts as the DNA and the personality of the organization. Though intangible, it is an all-encompassing characteristic of a workplace.

Moreover, in business, everything creates a domino effect; when a decision or action is taken at the lowest level, the impact it has makes its way to the very top, and vice versa. This speaks to the importance of company culture at the lowest level, with research showing that disaffected workers cost American businesses roughly $450 to $550 billion each year in lost productivity.

And yet, when something is so crucial and all-encompassing, it tends to also be fragile. Company culture is no different. Culture must be carefully finetuned and nurtured. This is why, with the constantly fluctuating and evolving nature of business in the modern age, culture is often threatened.  More than 50% of executives agree culture drives workplace productivity, firm value and even growth rates[i], so for businesses undergoing transition, there is cause for concern.

Pedro Angulo, Head of Leadership Development, AIB, explained his interpretation of the issue.

“They [transitions] basically create a lack of clarity and they create instability,” he said. “People might not be clear as to what is expected both in terms of work but also in terms of behaviour.”

However, with the right approach, such transition can be embraced rather than feared. With this in mind, Angulo explained his approach to maintaining culture through transition.

“Organizations with a clearly articulated purpose are equipped to go through those transitions,” he said. “While a strategy changes, while objectives change, the one thing that doesn’t tend to change too frequently is their purpose.”

This is one of what Angulo calls ‘the four Ps’: Purpose, Picture, Plan and Part. He explains that employees should clearly understand the core aims behind the change, the vision of where it is going to take the company, the mechanics of how the change is going to come about and finally the impact it will have on the individual.

This, in part, echoes a change effectiveness approach known as the ‘start, stop, continue retrospective’. This is a phased strategy, starting with implementing the change itself, and then reflecting on what didn’t work, incorporating the changes and repeating. This is a common way of actively monitoring change in order to ensure that employees are happy with the process.

But to achieve truly effective change whilst maintaining culture, the process must be brought right down to a local level. Particularly amongst large organizations, major transitions can feel monolithic in the eyes of the employee. The workforce can easily feel detached from it. However, if it feels approachable and relatable, the employee is far more likely to support it and engage with it.

Angulo echoes this sentiment.

“A lot of the changes don’t impact people at all,” he said. “People get all worked up over it, and then all it changes is maybe the chairs at the top table.

“You have to really bring it people’s level and say: ‘this is all going to be for you.’”

Broadly, it’s about communicating, engaging and being proactive. Studies support this theory too. Consultancy firm McKinsey produced an elaborate investigation into the topic, analysing whether organizations were following a series of 24 specific actions to support them in completing five distinct stages of transition. Such actions included leaders modelling behaviour changes and best practices being systematically identified and improved upon.

The study found that, of those who pursued all the actions during their transition, 79% reported the changes were successful in terms of improving performance – around triple the average success rate.

Not only can organizations take a more considerate, hands-on approach to ensure culture is maintained during transition, but in addition, such an approach may well lead to a more successful transformation in terms of KPIs.

Concluding, Angulo said: “We don’t put enough emphasis on the people element through transitions.

“I believe that people don’t resist change, but people resist change that is imposed on them and that they don’t understand and they don’t feel a part of.

“People who are treated respectfully are the ones that always deliver extra benefit and extra results.”

It stands to reason that transition should be as much about the process as the end goal. If the ideas are generated and executed in the c-suite, and the impact of the benefits are only felt in the c-suite, then it is unlikely that the workforce will have engaged with the transition and will appreciate the outcome.

In a nutshell, workforces should be the nerve-centre of a transition process, allowing employees to feel like they have a voice and giving them an opportunity to harness themselves to the brand on a more profound level. Not only will this improve the chances of success, but it may even improve culture because of the change, rather than in spite of it.

[i] https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/newsroom/newsn/3874/ceos-and-cfos-share-how-corporate-culture-matters

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