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The Public Manager Magazine Article

Shape the Culture, Shape the Future

Look at the stories people tell about your organization to better understand your culture, and follow these strategies to adjust it.


Fri Dec 09 2016


Look at the stories people tell about your organization to better understand your culture and follow these strategies to adjust it.

Shape the Culture, Shape the Future-092942a8387cd01727810c89696588e23352ce41cd54cbfdbcd049b86e72a17c

We all have a unique lens through which we see and experience organizations. When individuals share stories with others about their organization, these stories become your organizational story. Whether intended or not, these stories reflect your organizational culture and what others inside and outside think, feel, and accept as true about your organization.


Do your organizational stories inspire connection, innovation, energy, or agility? Do they incite uncertainty, confusion, negativity, or frustration? Or is it a mix of these attributes? The good news is, whatever your current story may be, you can consciously create the organizational culture you desire. Everyone in an organization has a role in helping to shape its culture. Consciously creating a desired culture is about aligning the expressions of culture (vision, mission, values, and everyday habits) with the work of the organization to create the story you want shared.

In my leadership and change work with public, private, and nonprofit organizations, some culture-shaping practices stand above others because they make the work of aligning culture across an organization easier, yet powerful. These top six culture-shaping practices are:

  • Learn where and why performance gaps exist. Understand the perspectives from all levels on your organization's strengths and areas of weakness. Get a quantitative and qualitative view so your analysis and follow-up actions create value. Check the impact of shared assumptions at the deepest level. When shared assumptions do not align with shared values, disconnects arise. If left unattended, the effects are felt across the organization.

  • Focus on one priority at a time. When you narrow your focus, it's easier to see and feel the full effects of culture change work. Critical discussions among key stakeholders to identify essential criteria help smooth the process of selecting the highest priority. The question that needs an answer is "What is most important to address the known performance gap and reach the desired outcome?"

  • Envision a different future. It makes no difference what the present circumstance is, envisioning a different future is foundational work for an organization's leadership team. It is about creating a clear line of sight for what it will take to reach the desired future. When the leadership team is aligned and focused on providing clear, meaningful, and time-specific direction regarding the highest priorities, others are able to respond with a sense of urgency and motivation to make it happen.

  • Engage others through shared learning and experience. It takes time to embed new thinking and behaviors across an organization. Shared learning and experience begins with identifying the values individuals hold in common to bring the organization together. Opportunities to test understanding and raise concerns about the associated behavioral expectations help make common values real. When shared learning and experience are valued, others in the organization are there to support, encourage, reinforce, and show empathy.

  • Define and shift cultural attributes to change the impact of culture. For any "from-to" change, clearly define both the "from" (detracting) and "to" (constructive) attributes to create a common language everyone can understand. The toughest work comes with internalizing the expected behaviors for each "to" attribute so it can become an organizational norm. No matter the generation, individuals change when they want to. It happens at an emotional level through new insights that shift thinking and prompt a change in behavior.

  • Speed the process of behavior change through role modeling. How often does it take "seeing what actually happens" to really "get it"? Role modeling is about making visible desired behaviors so others can directly observe what happens when these behaviors are present. Anyone, at any time, can be a role model to help signal, spread, and reinforce critical new behaviors.

Everyone in an organization has a role in shaping its culture. Yet many people find it hard to understand organizational culture, let alone change or shape it. Because visible (behaviors, practices, language) aspects of culture are powered and shaped by invisible (perceptions, values, worldviews) aspects, individuals who are aware of the invisible aspects find it easier to engage in culture-shaping work. A good place to begin creating this awareness is to know your own visible and invisible attributes.

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