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HR's role in cultural change?

The impact of culture on business success is hard to overstate. 84% of CEO's and HR leaders believe a strong culture is a competitive advantage (Deloitte 2016). For many organizations this implies changing the culture. Usually, the first questions is "How should we do this?". But it should be "Who owns this?".

Mostly culture change is laid at HR's feet

Since it involves people and their behaviour, HR - with their human systems expertise - is often tasked with aligning all practices to the desired culture. After all, senior leaders know that culture refinement is a never-ending, difficult project - one they rarely have hands-on experience with.

Human resource professionals on the other hand see it as an important and exciting project. They are often even eager to step up to the challenge of shifting the culture. All the more, if they were the ones to put it on the agenda in the first place.

But it should be led from the top and driven by the business

The reality is that HR priorities are numerous and influenced by business leaders. So unless it is the official responsibility of the business, cultural change won't be at the top of the agenda. It is regarded as "more to do from HR". The business has good intentions and sees the importance of culture, but they have a lot of formal; obvious priorities.

As a complication for making it HR’s sole responsibility, leadership - and especially the CEO - sets the tone for the company culture, for better or worse. Behaviour by the top team trickles down and influences the entire corporate culture. How leaders treat others becomes the standard for behaviour across the organization. The managers should model desired behaviour, every day.

Consequently, most successful cultural change projects ensure a clear CEO mandate and put the business in the driver seat. Read for example McKinsey's interview of Bernardo Sambra, BCP’s chief human-resources officer:

Make the managers the owners, not the victims of the process. HR can provide support.
In conclusion, culture change should be 100% owned by the business. After all, culture causes performance (and not vice versa) and can quadruple revenue growth. Surely that should make it a business priority!

How can HR leaders best support the cultural change?

HR should help business executives reach organizational goals. In culture transformation they can assist the business in four ways.

1. Build commitment

Often managers believe culture is important but are sceptical that it can change. They are right because most cultural change initiatives fail to deliver on their promises. HR can help by sharing cases of organizations that proactively driven culture change and were successful in doing so.

2. Facilitate understanding

Help map the difference between the existing and desired culture. Since culture is the essence of a company - the way it does things - understanding the values and behaviours is not an easy task. HR can help the business understand the current situation. It can provide insights to senior leaders on core enablers of culture change such as the level of trust between employees and managers. During the change, HR can keep executives informed with relevant, actionable data on the progress.

3. Help walk the talk

Leadership models desired behaviour and HR can act as the mirror for the leaders. They benefit greatly from seeing both the positive and negative elements of their decisions and behaviours. HR can help to ensure unity across the leadership team. HR can coach the top team to embrace defined values and behaviours in daily interactions. HR can train managers at all levels on key leadership traits that are aligned with the desired culture.

4. Embed the values in people systems

Values serve as a behavioural compass and HR should look to integrate them into their processes and tools. As the keeper of people systems, HR can assess how values or behavioural norms impact core practices:
  • Recruitment & staffing
  • Onboarding and new hire orientation
  • Feedback & performance management
  • Talent management & leadership development
  • Career & succession management
  • Reward & recognition
These practices must evolve as the desired culture is defined.

Koen Schreurs
Motivation & Recognition Expert

PS. Interested in changing your company culture? You might want to read Culture transformation: 11 Lessons learned from 11 top consultancies.

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