By Abhijit Bhaduri
Every time I change my password, I go through a familiar routine. When I log in the next time, I punch in the password; only to be greeted with an annoying message notifying that my password is not correct. For a second, I am puzzled. I am convinced that it is the email provider who is wrong and not my password. I start wondering to whom should I write a strong letter of protest. However, soon enough, another thought taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that I had recently changed my password. Then, I panic for the second time. What was the new password? What could I have changed it to? After fumbling for a bit, I finally recall my new password.
It takes a few more attempts like these, for the new password to be a part of my memory. And I no longer have to make an effort to remember my password. It has become my new habit. Now, I can type it without having to fumble – until I change it again.
How Is Culture Formed?
Habits are like that. They take time to take root and are equally hard to dislodge. Organizational culture is what we call the habits of an organization. These are ways in which people behave spontaneously, especially when they are unsupervised. When everyone starts behaving in a similar manner consistently, we say that the organization has a strong culture. The new members of the organization quickly fall in line. They watch everyone around them and learn how to behave in the most commonly occurring situations.
The Army and many other traditional organizations have “standard operating procedures” for every scenario. People are simply expected to follow the common code. I have seen many leaders lament that “if only we could have that army like discipline …” In their mind, discipline means “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”
Standard Operating Procedures
Is that a desirable end state? That depends on the nature of the business environment in which the firm has to operate. The most routine and repetitive tasks get done in the shortest possible time, when people follow orders without questioning. That is pretty much what traditional training systems have done. They teach people to perform repeatable tasks in the shortest possible time without hesitation. The more scenarios that can be visualized ahead of time, the more easily people can be trained to respond in the optimum manner. These then, become the standard operating procedures of the organization.
But there are other aspects of culture. These are the invisible rules that also become like codified standard operating procedures. How should employees with more experience behave when a trainee questions the decision? How do organizations deal with differences in opinions and approaches? Is that tolerated and encouraged, or merely brushed aside for the moment and ignored later?
We admire companies that are innovative. Their culture supports contrarian viewpoints and mavericks, which needs leaders who can manage the creative tension that these cultures spawn.
Are the Leaders Modeling the Right Behaviors?
Leaders define the contours of the organization’s culture. But, every individual employee has to own it. Leaders have to build evangelists and story-tellers who simplify the different elements of culture and make them easy to relate to. Culture change does not happen through posters. It happens when people emotionally care about the organization’s future and believe that the new behaviors will contribute to the organization’s success. They need to see their own success as vividly as the organization’s. Finally, when leaders act as role models, they start reinforcing new behaviors.
If remembering a new password is hard, trust me changing an organization’s culture is much harder.
Driving organizational culture change needs patience. While people readily endorse the idea of punishment as a way of building “discipline”, if that is not happening, it maybe for want of leaders who can be role-models. People must want to be like the leader they see. No wonder discipline and disciple both share the same Latin roots. It means instruction or knowledge. When leaders create disciples, they shape an organizational culture.
Abhijit Bhaduri is an Indian author, columnist and management consultant. He is the Chief Learning Officer of the Wipro Group.
This post was previously published in the Wipro LPS Quarterly, 3rd edition, May 2016.