An organization’s culture is shaped by what the majority of people do and say the majority of the time. If you wish to change the culture, you need to change the behaviors and the language of the people in your organization. These two functions wield the most impact on an agency’s culture. This post focuses on how to change the language of people in your organization to create culture change.
Successful cultural change is always a top-down phenomenon. Only once the leader adopts new language will others change their approach. This statement implies that cultural change is deliberate. YES! Cultural change is always a deliberate decision at the leadership level. And leaders’ choice of language has a powerful impact on an organization’s culture.
An Army laboratory experienced a series of accidents that resulted in employee injury and equipment malfunction. After investigation and introspection, its leaders recognized that a “macho” culture that eschewed safety precautions as a point of pride had taken hold and was creating an unsafe environment where employees cut corners and deliberately ignored safety standards of the facility. This culture was leading to a more dangerous workplace and needed to be reversed.
An initiative that involved both behavior and language was launched. Leaders wanted to change the employee’s perspective, or paradigm, on the importance of safety in the workplace. They focused on implementing a few main communications tactics to change how people talked about safety:
- They described the culture they wished to create. What are the elements of a safe laboratory? How do people behave? This information from leaders helped employees create their own visual of how a safely functioning organization operates. Leaders at all level of the organization articulated what safety means for their specific team and what it looks like on a day to day basis.
- They used multiple communications vehicles. Everywhere the employee turned a safety message was present. It because part of every employee review, every meeting, each mass email, newsletter article, and briefing to customers. Posters went up in the break rooms and flyers were posted on the inside of bathroom stalls.
- They focused on the positive. The focus was not on what to avoid, but on what works, such as a proper way to pick up heavy boxes. Employees were required to report on safety successes, not safety mistakes, in their weekly staff meetings. They reported on what went right that week before they talked about mishaps. People learn from positive examples, not avoiding negative examples.
- Messaging was available for copy and paste and they made it easy for employees to repeat choice language! The organization’s communications team created new templates for anyone in the organization to use in meetings with clients, emails, appraisals, and reports that included the new safety messaging. When asked to write a proposal, each employee had access to quality pre-written materials on the lab’s safety culture, process, and statistics. All they had to do was go to the Intranet and copy and past from existing materials.
In using these four communications strategies, the organization was able to change the thinking of managers and employees about safety, which resulted in fewer accidents and equipment downtime. The organization’s new language didn’t push back against the “macho” culture, but instead created a new culture in its place. One where safety was the highest priority.