Corporate Culture Turnarounds

By Kathy Miller on July 9th, 2013


Corporate cultures do not have to be dysfunctional.  Over the years, I have seen what appeared to be  intractable problems turn out to be opportunities for creating strong and affirming organizational cultures.   When an organization is ineffective due to its culture,  turnarounds are in the best interest of  all.  The leaders must  decide to make it happen.  They examine the  psychological contracts that exist and either reestablish the elements that have been violated or work to change the contracts.  They visualize the culture that they desire and put together plans to realize the vision.  They communicate their vision to the entire organization and demonstrate their commitments through changes in their own behavior.

For example, recently I worked with an organization fractured by conflict. The relationships among various factions were so adversarial that productivity suffered  as did the mental  health of almost everyone.  The destructive cycle was so entrenched that at first I concluded that nothing could be done to break it.  Management had done great damage to their relationships with employees by violating the psychological contracts repeatedly.  On the other hand, some of the employees had engaged in improper if not unethical behavior.  The psychological contracts that they carried in their minds were unsupportable.

Just as I was about to give up and exit this client organization, the leader called me.  He told me that he couldn’t tolerate the stress any longer.  Either the culture had to change or he had to leave the company  for the sake of his own emotional well-being.

He and I spent the next few  hours talking about what  it would take to really make a difference in that organization.  We talked openly about how his own behavior contributed to the problems and what he would have to do differently to create the changes he desired in the company culture.  Through our long discussion, he grappled with his own ambivalence about change.  He recognized that his first challenge was to come to terms with the emotional blocks that prevented him from changing.

Over the next few weeks, he and I met several times to discuss his hopes, fears and plans for change.  He decided to do whatever it took to turn the culture around.  He committed to taking the first steps himself.  I encouraged him to put together a concrete plan that included actions that he could take every day to live the changes that he envisioned.

Of course culture change cannot be accomplished by one man alone.  Not even the top-level executive is powerful enough to do it if by himself.  However he realized that his commitment is a necessary, if not sufficient, step towards success.  He believed that by demonstrating his own change, he could begin to establish the trust that he needed in order to ask others to change as well.  Stay tuned!