Communication Is Not Culture

Let me get this out of the way quickly: Communication is an essential element to drive any type of culture within any type of organization.

If safety is important to you (and it must be), you need to communicate about EHS consistently. Same goes for quality, accountability, productivity, engagement—whatever your culture, communication is critical. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 employees or 10,000. Communication enables culture.

But, all too often, business leaders mistake communication for culture itself. They think that talking about safety is enough to drive a culture of safety, that naming “quality” as a corporate value is enough to generate quality products, or that hanging posters espousing “teamwork” is enough to foster a spirit of collaboration among employees.

As a professional communicator it pains me to say this, but communication alone is not culture.

A cautionary tale

Once upon a time, I worked with a global Life Sciences company that was trying to evolve their culture toward innovation and product development. It’s a worthy endeavor, and it made sense from a strategic standpoint.

This particular organization had an entrenched culture. For years, executives had operated with a command-and-control style. They dictated what people did and how they did it, and they succeeded in driving accountability and productivity throughout the ranks of the company.

It was a culture where doing your job was rewarded, proactivity was discouraged and discipline was handed out liberally.

While micromanagement is good when you’re focused on the bottom line, it runs counter to the characteristics of an innovative organization, where employees are empowered to create, suggest, debate and expand.

A new executive—one with fantastic credentials—was brought in to implement an agile approach to product innovation. He was charged with getting the commercial team, product development, marketing and R&D working to generate new ideas and solve customer issues quickly.

The new executive then proceeded to make a fatal management error. Instead of identifying the roadblocks that stood in the way of innovation and working to (quickly) evolve the culture, he took a communication-only approach. He simply called the team together, explained what it means to have an “agile” mindset and set ambitious innovation objectives for the group. Then he sat back and waited for the new projects to roll in.

They didn’t. The team did not meet their goals (or even come close). They didn’t understand the strategic rationale behind the shift, they weren’t comfortable changing their customer engagement style, and they weren’t empowered to take risks or make calls. After all, that type of behavior would have gotten them skewered by management only months before.

After a few months of missed targets and frustration, the executive realized that the organization wasn’t ready to innovate and he had to start the process from square one. Time was lost, money was lost and the new executive’s credibility took a hit.

The executive mistakenly thought that he could drive a new culture simply by talking about a new culture. He forgot about five critical non-communication elements of culture:

1) Context

Changing a culture requires changing the way employees (and, in this case, customers) work and interact. If that new way of working is significantly different from current organizational norms, it’s going to require a heavy lift to move the dial.

Before you build a culture, you need to understand where people are coming from, where they are and where they’re willing to go.

2) Process

To build a culture of anything, work processes must be aligned with that culture. If you want employees to work safely, the processes they follow need to be designed for safety. For example, if your assistant has to balance on a shaky box to reach a report he needs to fill out every day, that’s not a safe process.

Likewise, if your R&D team works through sales for all customer interactions, then that process undermines the collaborative relationship necessary for joint innovation projects. Change the process and you can start changing the culture.

3) Incentives

People typically spend time doing the things from which they will derive the most benefit. In this respect, incentives drive performance.

If your incentive structure is tilted toward profitability and cost reduction, then you’re implicitly telling employees that safety, quality or service are secondary. If your commercial team is paid based on current-quarter sales, then asking them to consider long-term collaborative projects is not going to work.

4) Leadership

One executive or manager—regardless of how seasoned and respected he/she may be—cannot drive culture alone. Shifting or establishing a culture requires the buy in, influence and advocacy of the entire leadership team.

In this instance, the CEO relied on the new executive to innovate, but continued to rhetorically emphasize profitability, cost reduction and quick wins, while the CFO continued to report results based on financials alone.

Mixed signals among the leadership team are deadly for any change initiative, let alone a change that requires a fundamental shift in approach.

5) Capability

You can’t ask an individual to do something of which they are incapable. Telling someone to work harder, sell more products, start a new business line or move to Poland is not going to be successful if that individual isn’t capable of doing those things.

You’re communicating a change, but you’re not facilitating that change.

Before you ask people to work differently, you need to consider whether or not they are capable of it. Then, either coach them up or move them out.

Bottom line: You can’t move a culture without communication, but communication alone is not enough. To drive culture, you need your processes, policies, incentives, capabilities and leadership aligned. Only then will those slide decks, memos and posters work to supercharge your performance.

Lean Out Communications is a trusted management consulting firm that empowers organizations to navigate change and grow sustainably. We use a proven collaborative process to help you engage your key stakeholders with practical, repeatable and scalable solutions, tailored to your needs, so you can meet your unique objectives.

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Gene Nichols

Gene Nichols, MBA, managing partner, has more than two decades of global experience helping organizations navigate successful change, manage their reputations and drive sustainable competitive advantage.

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