The Vital Role of HR in Culture Change

September 14, 2016

The Vital Role of HR in Culture Change

How good is the quality of your work culture? Do senior leaders understand culture? Even more important, do they understand the condition of your current culture and senior leaders’ responsibility in refining that culture?

At most organizations, executives don’t pay much attention to culture. Their focus is on results. It’s what they know—and it’s what they’re paid to do. Executives have rarely been asked to manage the quality of their organization's work culture. Most don’t know how to do that.
 

The reality: culture matters. Culture drives everything that happens in organizations, for better or worse. Deloitte’s recent Global Human Capital Trends report makes a bold statement: “Culture has become one of the most important business topics of 2016.” 
 

Their report found that 82 percent of global CEO’s and HR leaders that responded to their survey believe that “culture is a potential competitive advantage.” The challenge is that leaders find culture difficult to measure, monitor, and manage! Only 28 percent of survey respondents believe they understand their organizational culture well. Only 19 percent believe they have the “right culture."
 

Who’s in charge of culture? Is it 100 percent senior leaders? One hundred percent HR? Fifty-fifty between HR and company leaders? Some other combination?
 

Contrary to many executives’ desires, the cold, hard truth is that the responsibility for culture leadership lies solely with senior leaders. They’re the only players that can change policies, procedures, systems, incentives, and more, which can formalize your desired culture and reinforce it over time.
 

More importantly, senior leaders set the tone for the culture with every plan, decision, and action. How leaders treat others becomes the default standard for treatment across the organizations - for better or worse! If you want a culture that demonstrates integrity, excellence, service, and respect (for example), senior leaders must define those values in behavioral terms then model those behaviors in every interaction, every day.
 

And, senior leaders have rarely experienced successful culture change. Even fewer have led successful culture change. Those realities lead to statements like these from senior leaders to HR: “We need to make our culture better. You guys know all that people stuff—take care of it."
 

We can’t let senior leaders off the hook. Creating a purposeful, positive, productive culture must be a strategic imperative for your organization—driven by senior leaders, supported by HR.
 

An inspiring, engaging, service-and-results-driven culture only happens by design, not by default. Senior leaders must define their desired culture, align all practices to that desired culture, and refine their culture over time.
 

Savvy executives know that culture refinement is a project that never goes away. It requires constant intention and attention from senior leaders. And, HR has vital knowledge and skills that can pave the road for senior leaders to proactively manage culture.
 

What is HR’s unique opportunity to help senior leaders understand their current culture and identify the issues that inhibit a purposeful, positive, productive culture? HR provides two critically important functions regarding culture.
 

First, HR does know “that people stuff.” HR typically has their fingers on the pulse of employee perceptions about the company, about good leaders and lousy leaders, the fairness of compensation and benefits, and more. HR holds documentation of team leaders’ and team members’ great or not so great contributions as well as their great or not so great citizenship and teamwork over time. HR can be a "Bearer of Truth,” helping present undeniable data to senior leaders about employee engagement, confidence, trust, and commitment.
 

Know that HR will have to keep this undeniable data top of mind. You’ll have to deliver it regularly, in a variety of ways, until senior leaders understand it and are ready to act to change ineffective elements of the organization’s culture.
 

Second, HR has “human systems” expertise that few others in your organization have. In addition to the encyclopedic “documentation” function, HR has assessment expertise to quantify how well leaders model desired values and behaviors. HR has coaching expertise to help mentor leaders and team members to embrace defined values and behaviors in daily interactions. HR is also, typically, the “keeper” of recognition systems. Those systems must evolve as you define your desired culture, shifting from purely validating results to validating results and values like citizenship and teamwork.
 

Senior leaders can’t change the culture, alone. They must specify what a “great citizen acts like,” be champions of your desired culture, role models of your desired culture, and coaches, validating aligned behavior and re-directing misaligned behavior. HR will help senior leaders build these skills and will keep leaders informed with relevant, actionable, and immediate data about the progress of the culture’s evolution.
 

Culture matters. Senior leaders need prompting, nudging, and undeniable data to embrace their responsibility to refine your culture.

The Authors: 

S. Chris Edmonds is a sought-after speaker, author, and executive consultant who is the founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group. After a 15-year executive career leading high-performing teams, Chris began his consulting company in 1990. He also serves as a senior consultant with The Ken Blanchard Companies. Chris is one of Inc. magazine’s 100 Great Leadership Speakers and was a featured presenter at SXSW 2015.

Chris is the author of the Amazon bestseller The Culture Engine, the bestseller Leading at a Higher Level with Ken Blanchard, and five other books. Chris's blog, podcasts, research, and videos can be found at Driving Results Through Culture. Thousands of followers enjoy his daily quotes on organizational culture, servant leadership, and workplace inspiration on Twitter at @scedmonds.