How do employees in companies react when the topic of corporate culture is added to the agenda? Are they willing to address the subject?
Felix Nübel: Almost everyone agrees that it is of paramount importance. After mergers, it’s like being in a magnifier: ninety percent of people say culture is a key factor for success. But, just as many don’t know how to make this quantifiable.
So how do you make culture tangible or quantifiable?
In a way, culture remains intangible ... and yet quantifiable. I find it very important to analyze the status quo at the beginning. One of our tools, for example, is a survey in which all employees can participate: our zeb.culture dynamo. In this way, we emphasize that, in addition to many specialist topics, cultural integration also enjoys professional support. Then, it’s necessary to frankly talk to certain people to identify patterns. At the same time it’s clear: each institution has its specific culture, beliefs and narratives. There are many unwritten rules about what to do and what not to do.
When analyzing the culture, we usually identify a handful or a dozen impressive stories – for example, regarding a certain way of dealing with hierarchy or a silo structure. This becomes apparent after just a few interviews. And this is how the culture in a company becomes tangible and quantifiable: through the number and relevance of the processes and interfaces at which these key factors become tangible and relevant for action.
Are there other indicators besides the structured approach which make culture tangible?
Over the years, you are developing an intuition for organizations. You enter the room and feel the culture in certain situations. What are the dynamics in the room? How are these rooms designed? Are the people talking to each other? Who interacts with whom? How do they address each other? How do reception desk staff welcome you? Where are the management board offices and what are they like? Does anyone pay attention to the working environment to ensure that people can work well? There are hundreds of thousands of small signals forming a bigger picture in any organization. Then external support is needed to address the big picture and make it transparent.
Awareness is one thing, change is another. What comes next after the analysis?
It always starts with awareness. This holds also true for culture: you need to identify your own patterns. Second, it’s important to not evaluate your observations. You need to stop evaluating everything. It’s rather about accepting differences. And this provides the basis for establishing the ability to engage in dialog which is key.
Of course, culture is never just positive or negative. You need to support the positive drivers and, as far as possible, remove obstacles to organizational development. These are the prerequisites for setting up a tailor-made cultural development program with a good mix of content, dialog and practical project components.
Does that always work?
We support organizations where people have been working together for 20, 30 and sometimes even 40 years. Sometimes there are, of course, already long-running conflicts. If that’s the case, you will have to first resolve the conflict in order to succeed. It’s often better to link the topic of culture with a content-related one – such as a strategy development, a sales concept or a process modeling. It’s then easier to reflect on the culture in such a process. Culture can always be identified in specific issues, rather than in general.
Let’s take the example of agile project management. First of all, this is simply a project management method. However, this requires people to have a certain mindset and communicate frankly with each other. If this is to be introduced in a hierarchical system, it will quickly lead to a cultural issue.
Cultural processes often involve the board and top management. How do you manage to involve the employees, too?
In principle, we try to work diagonally across the hierarchy. In other words: we also involve the employees. Cultural projects are even better suited. In mergers, for example, usually only a limited group of employees is involved, many of them managers. The cultural part, which is essential in mergers, offers the opportunity to involve more employees across the entire spectrum in the integration process.
We are talking about culture in projects. What happens when this culture then meets the corporate culture?
Indeed, this can lead to a clash of different worlds. It’s important to not be afraid of addressing a conflict and of resolving it afterwards. But perhaps this is exactly the chance to establish a different culture in a project.
But what if the project has already been completed?
It doesn’t happen that fast. A good cultural process lasts two, three or even four years. And actually, it’s never over. We provide support in getting started, setting goals and taking key actions. The respective institution must then continue to deal with the subject. We can set important incentives during the project. Times of change, such as change projects or mergers, are well suited for this. They are more apt for cultural transformations than day-to-day business.
It’s obvious that a lack of culture can be a problem. How would you describe the positive aspects? What should culture be like?
First of all, the criterion of psychological security or absence of fear is key for quality. If this is not fulfilled, employees cannot be motivated intrinsically. Another overarching criterion for the quality of a corporate culture is the ability to engage in dialog. I want to provide the opportunity to talk about and make certain cultural aspects clear in the first place.
If it’s only about the image of colleagues or departments, you will lose sight of their complexity. In the worst case, this can become a reason for divorce – in private as well as in professional life. Furthermore, culture is rather about functionality in terms of the organization’s business goals and performance. I don’t think there is a universal ideal of corporate culture.
Are there any cultural differences depending on the region or company size?
Regional bank mergers involve neighboring institutions – often from the same region, yet with significant cultural differences. It simply developed differently – or was shaped that way by individuals. In general, the following applies: the larger a savings bank or cooperative bank grows, the more important it is to work with the entire management team on cultural development right from the start. When you change something in the culture, the managers have to think of what they want to change and, above all, what they believe they can contribute themselves. In other words:
how they have to change themselves in order to change the bank. Change always starts at the top. At the end of the day, changing an organization always starts with changing the behavior of individuals – in particular managers.
Are there typically certain departments who favor change?
Each bank has its own dynamics. We always have to find the people who have creative or hierarchical power and want cultural change. If you back the wrong horse, change won’t work either.
Is cultural change a question of age?
Not really. It’s a matter of being able to reflect on yourself. But yes, usually university graduates are more likely to embrace change.
Take-aways on corporate culture:
- Culture is a key success factor – especially in mergers
- The first thing to do is to carefully analyze the status quo
- Each institution has specific cultural patterns
- A dozen narratives shape the culture
- It always starts with awareness
- Observations must not be mixed up with evaluations
- The key objective is to establish the ability to engage in dialog
- Major conflicts must be dealt with beforehand
- Combine the topic of culture with a content-related one
- Involve employees from different hierarchical levels
- Gain support from people with creative or hierarchical power
- Topics must be frankly addressed
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