Butterflies and Icebergs: Changing Culture Ain’t Easy!

by | Feb 11, 2022 | blog | 0 comments

If you’ve ever been involved in a culture change effort at work, you know how hard it can be. Even defining “culture” can be tricky — much less understanding how to lead and manage the change effort.

Probably the best definition of culture is simply, “how we do things around here.” It’s like water in a fishbowl — needed and always present, but for the fish, it’s simply what they live in. And, like a fishbowl, unless someone pays attention to the water, it can quickly become cloudy, murky, and unhealthy.

The bad news may be that it is difficult — if not impossible — to impact culture directly. Instead, it is much more effective to influence and shape culture. When you “thin-slice” the culture you want — creating low-hanging opportunities for success — your desired organizational culture will take shape.

“Culture is what people do when no one is looking.” — Herb Kelleher, Chairman, Southwest Airlines

So how do you pay attention to culture? How do you shift it to the place you want it — one that is positive, supportive, and productive for you and your people?

  1. First, determine and define the culture you want. Do you want a more team-based, collaborative culture? Do you want a more market-based, bottom-line driven culture? If you don’t define your culture, it will define itself. LaPiana Associates warns us, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you do not proactively attempt to create a new culture, inevitably the vacuum will be filled with anxiety and grief at the loss of what was.”
    The first priority in defining your new culture is to establish business goals that the new culture can form around. What are the metrics that each staff person can work towards in the new culture? When business successes are achieved, a strong positive culture will result.
  2. Think of the butterfly effect as you think through your culture change. Systems and culture resist big changes, so plan small changes throughout your organization — those small consistent changes will make the difference; they will thin-slice the culture change to be manageable and comfortable for everyone.
  3. These small changes should hit all three levels of the culture-change iceberg:
    WHAT WE SEE: Above the water line — these are the cultural “artifacts”. What do you see in a new culture? This includes signage, dress, office setup … anything visible. Make sure all reflect and support your desired culture.
    WHAT WE SAY: Right below the water line — these are the “espoused values” of your new culture. Codify your new vision, values, and expectations. Put them in writing and distribute them widely. And lead conversations that explore and “bake in” the new culture.
    WHAT WE KNOW: Deep below the surface — this is the toughest level to shape and influence, but super critical. What are the deeply held “underlying assumptions” that people have?  What are the “unwritten memos” and sacred cows? Surface the “undiscussables” in your organization and have tough conversations. People need to be heard — deeply and authentically — when shifting your culture.

Organizational culture cannot be directly impacted — but it can be shaped. And this happens most effectively by aligning work processes behind clear business goals and metrics. When there is success in achieving these goals, strong positive organizational culture forms organically as a result of those successes. So … do your pre-work … think through where you want to go with your new culture … then work the iceberg’s three levels. That’s how you change the water — how you change the culture — in your own fishbowl.

About Danny

With over 20 years experience in training and leadership development  — and holding an MBA and an MA in Organizational Development — Danny Ceballos has worked with organizations across the country to strengthen their effectiveness in leading and managing others through supervision+motivation best practices and strategies.