The Wrong Ways to Strengthen Culture

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Compared with some other activities of business leaders, such as hiring the right talent and setting strategy, changing corporate culture can be especially challenging. Culture is amorphous; there are no direct levers for shifting it in one direction or another.

Yet, indications are that CEOs are putting a higher priority on this aspect of leadership than in the past. According to a study by the research and advisory firm Gartner, CEOs mentioned culture 7 percent more often during earnings conference calls in 2016 than in 2010. In surveys both CEOs and Chief Human Resources Officers say that “managing and improving the culture” is the top priority for talent management. But the data suggests that there’s lots of room for improvement: Each year companies spend $2,200 per employee, on average, on efforts to improve the culture with much of that money going to consultants, surveys, and workshops — but only 30 percent of Chief Human Resources Officers report a good return on that investment.

Why? One reason might be that when trying to spearhead culture change, many leaders use the wrong tools. Having surveyed more than 7,500 employees and nearly 200 HR leaders at global companies and conducted in-depth interviews with 100 HR leaders, Gartner has written a report identifying the most and least effective ways leaders try to transform culture.

As Gartner’s Bryan Kurey summarizes in the July-August 2019 Harvard Business Review, executives can increase their odds of success, by avoiding the following three mistakes.

Mistake #1: Don’t use simple adjectives to describe culture.

Because culture feels “squishy” and hard to describe, leaders tend to resort to a generic, overused set of adjectives: Cultures are said to be high-performing, collaborative, innovative, customer-focused, entrepreneurial, results-oriented, transparent, or trusting. Gartner studied how companies using these various buzzwords compared with one another on progress toward revenue goals and found no significant differences — meaning that none of the labels creates an advantage. One reason: Often the chosen buzzword is at odds with how the company actually operates. That causes what Bryan Kurey, Gartner’s managing vice...

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