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The Path to a Positive Workplace Culture: Success Factors Explored

Discover the key success factors for effective workplace culture transformation

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 16, 2023

The 5 D’s of Culture Evolution – What Makes or Breaks Your Culture Transformation Efforts

The culture of your organization is often invisible, yet its impact is easy to observe – if not, ask your people. A positive culture is enjoyable, helping employees do their best work. On the other hand, an awful culture gets the worst out of them.

While most leaders recognize the importance of business transformation, few can make the connection between culture evolution and business success. You can’t change your business without changing your ways of working. Embracing innovation or a new business model requires new mindsets and behaviors from leaders and employees.

A recent study by Boston Consulting Group shows that focusing on culture can make digital transformation initiatives five times more likely to succeed than not doing so.

A positive workplace culture is essential for business success. In this post, I will explain the five factors for effective workplace culture transformation – and how to take your organization to the next level.

Why Culture Change Initiatives Fail

Culture change is a complex process that requires significant effort, resources, and commitment from organizations. Despite the best intentions, many culture initiatives fail to transform existing mindsets and behaviors.

However, the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean your organization is doomed to fail. I’ve experienced many success stories both as an employee, as a CEO, and now as a consultant. Often experts state that around 70% of culture change efforts fail, but a study found no empirical evidence to support that statistic.

As this HBR article suggests, we should stop using “change is hard” as an excuse.

Before discussing success factors, let’s address the most common reasons why culture change fails. Here are some watch-outs based on a meta-analysis of culture research and our experience helping organizations build positive workplaces. Some are easier to prevent than others.

1. Unreasonable desire to change everything

Culture is deeply ingrained in an organization. Values, mindsets, and behaviors are closely tied to people’s experiences. They provide solid lines for behavior and establish the character of the company, as Bruce McTague explains here.

When leaders try to change everything it often backfires, fostering resistance and confusing people.

Improving your company culture is an iterative process rather than a big bang. Leading people from a familiar space (what was) to a new state (what’s next) requires guidance –  the liminal space is anything but comfortable. Prioritize building momentum over revolution. Regularly assess progress, iterate, and embrace an experimental mindset.

Most importantly, build on what’s working – improve or change only what’s not working.

2. Leaders are not involved

Leadership commitment is essential to driving the transformation of workplace culture. Leaders who are fully invested in change, demonstrating their commitment through their actions and communicating the importance of the transformation, set the right tone for the rest of the organization.

As a leader, you need to model the desired behavior and ensure people 1) understand the reasons for the change and 2) how it will benefit them. If you aren’t fully committed or fail to set the tone, the culture initiative won’t go anywhere.

3. Don’t want to do the hard work

Culture change is not complicated. However, it’s a complex process that requires a significant amount of time and continuous effort. Most importantly, it means having uncomfortable courageous conversations about what’s working and not.

Organizations must be prepared to invest in culture change over a long period if they hope to achieve lasting results.

If you are unwilling to put in the effort, expecting people’s behaviors to change is unrealistic.

4. Underestimate the power of subcultures

The culture of an organization is the sum of all its subcultures. People across multiple departments, locations, and levels have different experiences and needs. The challenge is aligning employees across complex structures, peculiarities, and powerplays.

However, neglecting the power of subcultures can be harmful to the organization. To succeed, you need to know where to drive alignment and where to provide the freedom and autonomy to let teams decide how they work.  

5. Rely too much on consultants

At Fearless Culture, our role is to build capacity, not dependency. We don’t want to be part of the Big Con. As Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington explain in their namesake book, consultancies make a business of removing people’s capacity to row their own boats.  

To successfully implement change, leaders should seek advice on designing the culture but should not outsource the implementation itself. Living, breathing, nurturing, and modeling a culture is something that you should take care of, not external consultants.

Success Factors: The 5 D’s of Culture Evolution

The 5 D’s of Culture Evolution framework captures the most critical steps for a successful culture transformation.

When helping our clients design their cultures, we often talk about culture evolution instead of culture change. Not only does the word “change” generates resistance among people, but we believe that leaders should evolve, not replace, the existing culture – preserve what’s working and eliminate or improve what’s not.

The five D’s stand for Design, Define, Demonstrate, Demand, and Develop. Each requires specific roles and responsibilities for both leaders and employees.

Design: What’s Possible? Uncover the Desired Culture

Success Factor #1: Culture design is a co-created process

An effective culture transformation can’t be achieved through top-down command. You can impose limiting company rules but you can’t force people to be creative, collaborative, or team players.

Instead, you must design a conducive environment for those behaviors to thrive.

The Culture Design Process involves codifying and assessing the current culture and then designing the ideal culture – as well as how to get there.

People should play a vital role in shaping workplace culture. Their active involvement is a critical success factor. Involving employees not only creates a sense of ownership, but also improves the outcome by tapping into collective wisdom.

Codifying your culture means mapping what people experience, not the official story. By facilitating sessions with multiple groups, you can map a more realistic, comprehensive view and uncover commonalities, gaps, and surprises.

The same applies to designing better ways of working. Having different teams experiment with hybrid work models, decision-making, or feedback practices (to name a few) will help your organization tap into multiple experiments.

Most importantly, when people are part of defining the culture, they’ve already bought in. There's no need to sell people the new vision when they have emotional ownership.

Define: Make the Desired Culture Official

Success Factor #2: Create a living blueprint

Clear and consistent communication is vital to increase awareness and excitement. Defining your culture is less about managing by announcements and more about promoting healthy conversations on how to move the culture forward.

The Culture Design Canvas is much more than a visual tool to codify the current and desired culture. It’s a living visual document to capture the journey, too. As your culture evolves, so should the blueprint.

Most importantly, a culture document is neither perfect nor set in stone. A culture blueprint should provide clarity, guidance, and inspiration without being too prescriptive or limiting experimentation. Including people in the process makes it easier for them to understand and embrace the desired culture.

Encourage people to contribute – to help improve the blueprint. This could include clarifying things, adding new practices, refreshing expected behaviors, or removing elements that no longer serve your culture

Demonstrate: Leaders Model Desired Behavior

Success Factor #3: Become the change you want to see

The culture of your organization is a reflection of leaders’ behavior. Change begins when executives model the behavior they want the organization to emulate. Leaders who are fully invested in continuous improvement and who demonstrate their commitment through actions, not just words, set the tone for the rest of the organization.

Unfortunately, leaders are often more worried about others’ behaviors than their own.

How can we make people more accountable?

How can I persuade my team to take more risks?

I want my employees to move faster; how can we achieve that?

I get asked these questions all the time. CEOs and team leaders rapidly jump into what others must change, rather than reflecting on their own behavior. They fail to realize that what leaders do – or don’t do – defines the real culture.

Through the example they set, leaders shape the culture with their words and actions. Leading culture evolution requires going all in: you need to connect with employees’ hearts and minds. Research by Deloitte shows that emotions are the driving force to inspire human behavior, more so than rational calculation.

Employees hold leaders to high standards. Culture initiatives must be embraced and championed by the entire leadership team, not just the CEO. People will push back to see if there’s real alignment and commitment at the top.

Demand: Clarify Behaviors That Are Rewarded and Punished

Success Factor #4: Anchor values with tangible behaviors

Culture is the behavior you reward and punish. Leaders who fail to draw a line end up cultivating the germs of toxicity. That’s why most cultures go wrong: little attention is paid to the little things until they become the big things.

Company values are empty words if not supported by action.

The same way leaders model the right behavior, they should set clear expectations for their people – and demand that people abide by them. Successful cultures are consistent in which observable, tangible behaviors they reward and punish.

Establishing a positive standard requires that everyone abide by the same rules – overlooked transgressions harm credibility and commitment.

Demand what’s right, not what’s easy. HubSpot punishes taking shortcuts to achieve short-term results. Conversely, it rewards: simplicity, being a culture add (versus fit), work and life balance, and results (not hours worked).

Your responsibility as a leader is to clarify the behaviors that should be celebrated and which shouldn’t be tolerated.

Develop: Grow into a More Advanced, Stronger Culture

Success Factor #5: Culture evolution is a marathon, not a sprint

Developing your culture is about growing into a more progressive, stronger shape. There are no silver bullets to get there. Every organization must pave at its pace by experimenting and iterating.

Building a positive workplace culture requires incredible drive and a strong sense of urgency. The notion that culture is invisible shouldn’t become an excuse; you must keep it present and visible. Otherwise, culture initiatives risk getting stuck behind other priorities, especially emergencies.

Culture evolution requires long-term commitment and sustained efforts to transform the organization at a structural level. Often senior executives focus on short-term needs, prioritizing what’s urgent over what’s important. This paradox is hard for many to understand.

Evolving your company culture is a marathon, not a sprint. Ensure you don’t run out of air before reaching the finish line.

To prevent culture change fatigue, avoid changing all at once. As I advise my clients: identify a few key structural changes as well as some quick wins. The first will create the desired long-term impact, the latter will drive excitement and build momentum.

Don’t go too fast but don’t go too slow either – the best pace for your organization is the fastest your organization can tolerate.

A Positive Workplace Culture Is Essential for Business Success

Great leaders encourage inclusive, productive, and actionable conversations about culture. They are facilitators. Leaders know that positive cultures don’t happen by chance but by design.

The key success factors for an effective workplace culture transformation require intentionality, clarity, and consistency. If one of the three is missing, your efforts will collapse.

Culture is how people behave when no one is looking.

The 5 D’s of culture evolution – Design, Define, Demonstrate, Demand, and Develop – provide an actionable framework to define how everyone will behave when leaders are not watching.  

Keep these factors in mind to create a positive and supportive workplace culture that benefits both people and the business.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

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