Changing Organizational Culture

One of the most common questions we are asked about organizational culture change is:

Should it be top down or bottom up?

The answer is: Yes.

Decades of leadership development research and common sense tells us that individuals at the highest levels in organizations have the most influence on the organization, as a whole, in the shortest time. But what about the tens, hundreds, or thousands of employees that keep the organization moving forward each and every day? Are they able to influence culture based on sheer number and longevity?

Influence works in both directions, so alignment of energy moving up and down the organization is key to culture change. A strategy that emerged from an initiative with one of gothamCulture’s clients is “top-down, bottom-up” (to be clear, the goal of this approach is to create an open organizational culture that values employees’ opinions and closes the distance between the frontline and executives). The trick to carrying out this strategy is to do both in concert.

It isn’t enough to set leadership loose with a plan to communicate the strategy of the organization and hope that everyone follows. This can result in leaders excitedly running up the metaphorical mountain of change and looking back to realize that no one is following. By the same token, it isn’t enough to provide a survey to engage employees without leaders taking action to address survey results.

Here are some “top-down, bottom-up” lessons we’ve learned over the years:

* Communicate strategically to inform everyone of happenings around the organization. Designate a small team to act as the nucleus to drive communication efforts and translate information coming from the top and bottom. A dynamic communication system is critical to a lean and nimble organization that can compete in today’s business environment.

* Ask employees how to move the organization forward and carry out the initiatives worth pursuing. They are closest to the issues that may derail your plans.

* Provide “face time” for the frontline to meet executives and share concerns and ideas. This doesn’t mean a token executive appearance at a ‘town hall’; we’re talking about creating space for these groups to roll up their sleeves and work together.

* Listen to the workforce with sincerity and empathy. Today’s employees expect their jobs to be fulfilling, challenging, and worth investing time into (which is often more important to retention than compensation packages).