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Stephen Walker

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Cultural communications: Ignore at your peril


With a stern warning that "people will listen politely to what you have to say and then watch what you do" Stephen Walker says that cultural communications must be coherent for the best effect.

Many years ago I worked near an IBM office. On Friday lunchtime we went to the pub and the IBMers were easy to spot in their regulation blue suits and white shirts.
Other than a uniform, what people have in common in organisations is the culture. The culture is the driving force, the leitmotif, and it needs to be managed.
All organisations have cultures, whether managed or informal. If you don't manage your culture you have an informal one and probably it is different between locations, departments and functions. The only way to manage your culture is to communicate the vision from the top.
Cultural communications need to be managed like all things with three simple questions.
  • What is our culture now?
  • What do we want it to be?
  • How do we go from here to there?

What is our culture now?

The big question is what is the balance between formal and informal communication? Is your culture an accident? Are the different communications saying contrary things?
There is, or should be, a big overlap between brand and culture. Imagine working for an organisation that advertises its products as "no expense spared" but the culture is that you cut corners and "it's good enough" is the rule of the day. The external and internal communications must be similar.
Perhaps you have an opinion leader in the organisation espousing his or her own views at odds with the formal communication? Machiavelli was right when he said keep your friends close but your enemies closer. People left behind in re-organisations or passed over for promotion can be a source of respected opinions to eager listeners.
"There is, or should be, a big overlap between brand and culture....The external and internal communications must be similar."
Is there a common theme to the official communications? Style matters so much, tone even more. I hesitate to bring Disney's Jungle Book into a management piece but do you follow Baloo's advice and "accentuate the positive"?
Finally in our mini-culture audit is the issue of pay. If you are communicating that you are the world's/country's/sector's biggest and best player you had better make sure your pay policy backs that up. It is no good spewing forth fine words when your pay rates are miserly. If you say you are better than average as an organisation, your pay rates should be better than average too.
Remember: people are not stupid. They will listen politely to what you have to say and then watch what you do.

What do we want it to be?

Formal objectives are always a good idea. They provide a focus to the plan even if the contribution of the cultural communication is difficult to measure. The organisation will have goals and the cultural communication should support them.
Often the culture you are trying to embed is based even further back to the organisation's purpose, values and ethics. This foundation gives organisations a direct link to their founders. We have all met these organisations. They strike us as focussed, different and energised. They 'live the brand'.
All cultures, all organisations need myths. The myths may not always be true but they should be at the heart of the brand, the culture, the message.
I'm sure that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard did start their business in a garage with the simple view that they could make the electronic equipment better, higher specification, than the market offerings. But what a fantastic myth! There wasn't an electronic engineer from the 60s to 90s that didn't salivate at the thought of getting his hands on the latest model. That culture of working in the garage gave rise to a tremendous innovative surge throughout HP as they took a leading position in their market.
The culture and the myths need to drive behaviour. You need to know the HP way and behave in line.
If people do behave in line with the culture do make sure that other management instructions and objectives are coherent. If someone spends an hour on the phone resolving a customer's problem in line with your culture, don't then complain about missed targets for calls per hour.

How do we go from here to there?

This is a cultural change programme and like all change programmes needs a champion. A senior person needs to 'own' this change and provide the muscle needed to make it happen. I have seen several organisations that have run joint programmes between HR and Marketing. The external brand and internal culture need to be similar in any case.
The HR people get to see how to sell a message and the marketing team see how the message is received by people who won't be shy in saying how they see it.
Changing culture requires a lot more communication than simply trying to maintain one. The richer the variety of communication channels and the more unexpected the message, are both key factor in how much communication is actually received. You need to decide who communicates and how often. It should be many and frequently in the beginning of the change process.
I'm sure we have all been caught by the Chinese whispers game after management briefings? How many problems arise from passed on briefings that a manager has misunderstood? Make sure they get a printed handout to brief their people. There are many tools at your disposal: staff meetings, newsletters and executives walking about being but three. Physical changes to office layouts, re-decoration or giving everyone the same mobile send loud messages.
People listen to what you have to say and then watch what you do.
Finding out what people understand the culture to be now is an interesting question. I have always taken the view that the managers should know the answer if they are not hiding behind their desks. This does presume a culture of blame and failure does not exist. Otherwise everyone reports things are fantastic!
Surveys are an alternative of course.
My thoughts are that staff responses to surveys are:
  • If only they would come and ask they would know
  • They never listen to the surveys anyway
  • I'm not risking saying anything detrimental
Perhaps surveys are like bonus schemes. I am sure a good one is possible, I just haven't seen it yet.
Finally like any managed task, like any marketing plan and any change programme there are three simple repetitive tasks to complete:
  • Plan
  • Do
  • Review
Don't launch a big cultural communication change programme without these three steps. Do review progress to plan regularly and make adjustments as you go.
Is that part of your culture anyway?
Stephen Walker has over 30 years of hands-on business and academic experience. He is the founder of Motivation Matters, a management consultancy focused on inspiring achievement in people. You can follow Stephen on Twitter and Facebook. 


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