How to Change an Organization’s Culture

October 1, 2007

Much literature has been written on branding.

But what is a brand? Can you define it in just 6 words?

No, it is not Nike’s “swoop.” It is not McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle. It is not Accenture’s Tiger Woods ads. It is not the design of my website or my “Unconventional Thinking” tag line.

Erik Hansen, Tom Peters’ brand manager (and a good friend of mine), said it quite eloquently. A brand is… “what your customers say it is.”

What is great about this definition is that it gives you direct access to changing your brand. To change your brand you must change your customers’ perceptions and experiences. No logo or advertising campaign has ever done this.

Much less has been written about culture. Can you define it in just 4 words?

This one is a bit trickier. If you Google “definition of culture” you will find a wide range of thoughts on the topic. Webster’s definition of organizational culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices.” Not bad. But it does not give you direct access to changing your organization’s culture.

Try on this definition.

Culture is… “what your employees say.”

It not what they (or you) say it is, but rather what they say.

It is defined by the conversations. Verbal, written, and unwritten conversations. These might be your mission, vision, rules, and policies. But quite often, your culture is more powerfully defined by the informal conversations that take place.

Conversations between employees. Conversations between bosses and subordinates. Conversations between employees and customers. Conversations between employees and their family and friends. And most importantly, the conversations that take place in the heads of your employees.

Given this, how do you change a culture?

You change the language.

There is a reason I have been dedicating so much blog space to the power of language. Yes, I am fascinated by language. But more importantly, the words we use define our culture. The words we use impact risk taking, perceptions, and motivations.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these definitions.

In future blog entries, I will discuss specific ways in which you can change your organization’s culture by changing its language.

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