ManagementSpeak: We’re all on the same team here.

Translation: Stop arguing and just do it my way.

Alan Earnshaw’s the latest member of the KJR Club for insisting we all translate “on the same team” the same way.

Is culture change the only path to sustainable success, as last week’s column suggested?

“Only” is a pretty strong word. And there are alternatives. Rigid, ruthless enforcement of policies, standards and procedures can get the job done too. Comparing the two, though, enforcement has several disadvantages:

  • Effort: Managers who rely on enforcement have to work a lot harder. Yes, cultures are normative — they enforce themselves — but it’s through the magic of peer pressure, not through managerial exertion.
  • Expense: Policies, standards and practices don’t write themselves, and once written, someone has to enforce them when an employee violates one of the rules. That “someone” turns into actual staffing.
  • Ugh: Use your empathy, and if you don’t have any, pretend. Imagine you’re on the receiving end of an enforcement-driven regime. It’s unpleasant. The practical consequence is that the best employees will be lining up in droves (assuming, of course, that droves form lines) to work anyplace not overseen by an enforcement-oriented manager.

It’s entirely fair to point out that not all good employees are a good fit to all business cultures, and that the ones who don’t fit will also line up to work someplace else.

But there’s a difference: You want the ones who aren’t a good fit to leave, because … culture is how we do things around here. If you’ve designed and implemented the culture you want, employees who don’t fit are employees who don’t do things that way.

Now: Culture might be how we do things around here, but how about that design and implement part? Culture isn’t software. How can a manager design and implement it?

Designing and implementing culture

First, please forgive my compulsion to make a perhaps-fine distinction — the difference between managers and leaders.

Management is about organizing and tracking work to make sure it gets done and gets done right. It’s about getting results out the door. Leadership is about getting others to follow you — to get them to go where you want them to go under their own power and initiative. Those in positions of authority wear both hats, but they’re different hats.

Culture is a leadership, not management responsibility, and in fact, defining and implementing culture is one of the eight tasks of leadership.

How to go about it?

While the short, informal definition of culture is how we do things around here, it’s a definition that aids understanding but not engineering. Understanding culture design starts with the definition used by ethnoscientists: The learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment.

Next, you need to recognize that most of the “environment” employees respond to consists of the behavior of their fellow employees, and of their fellow employees the behavior of the manager they report to has the greatest impact.

There are other environmental factors, of course, like the size and style of the work environment, whether co-workers are face-to-face or virtual, and the communication technologies available. These all have an impact, so they are tools leaders have at their disposal when trying to change a culture.

But the primary tool in every leader’s culture-change toolkit is the mirror, because every business culture is, more than anything else, a reflection of how that leader behaves.

Only, behavior isn’t enough. This is the great unspeakable reality of modern, litigation-averse human resources: Attitudes aren’t supposed to matter. Not only that, but we aren’t supposed to try to influence them at all. Our job is to get employees to behave properly. How they think? Not our problem.

Only it is our problem, and perhaps our opportunity.

No, you don’t want to place yourself in the role of thought police. If, for example, someone who reports to you is inflexibly bigoted against, oh, say, skinny women with freckles, “Stop hating skinny women with freckles or you’re fired!” just isn’t going to work, while “I don’t care what you think — just because Anne is skinny and has freckles doesn’t mean you’re allowed to treat her differently from anyone else,” is entirely legitimate.

But ask yourself: If you were hiring, and it came out during the interview process that one applicant just hates all skinny women with freckles, would you hire that applicant?

Attitudes drive behavior, so pretending they don’t matter is just that — pretending.

So while you aren’t allowed to judge employee attitudes, that doesn’t mean you can ignore them. Culture change requires a change in attitudes.

Which will require a change in your behavior. Which usually will require a change in your attitudes.

Did I mention that culture change is really, really hard?

* * *

Eight years ago in Keep the Joint Running, I wrote about religious diversity in the workplace and how you, as a manager, need to approach the subject (“A difficult balance at best,” 1/9/2006) — this week’s blast from the past.

Close runner up: It’s eleven years old, but who can resist taking potshots at ’em, so here’s my “Total Cost of Gartner” (1/13/2003).