26 September 2023

High definition: The role of HR in effecting cultural change

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Kathryn Moody* says that how an organisation defines its culture and the tangible examples it provides to back it up are keys to influencing employee behaviour.

Photo: Dylan Gillis

So many people have written books on culture, seeking to explain what it is and why it matters.

Organisations spend gobs of money trying to define it, and most by now know that a strong organisational culture is key to success.

But Jamie Notter, co-founder and consultant at Human Workplaces, was done with vague definitions (after, of course, writing a kind of culture book himself).

To Notter, culture has to go beyond just a buzzword; it has to become “a useable business tool”.

How to define culture

According to Notter, culture lives on in the words, actions, thoughts and “stuff” within an organisation — and how an organisation defines culture has to be rooted in concrete details that a manager could use as examples to prove the point.

“What is your answer to ‘what is the culture here?’” he said.

“Just saying ‘awesome’ or ‘great’ doesn’t go far enough.”

Even a popular phrase to describe a culture — “we’re like a family here” — introduces variables an organisation likely doesn’t want.

“The number one word associated with family is ‘dysfunctional’,” he said, so there’s no way to tell what an applicant thinks when a recruiter uses that phrase.

That’s where “stuff” comes in.

A better example would be something akin to “we are fiercely collaborative”, as that can be reflected in any number of actionable examples that a recruiter could point to.

Behaviours within the organisation do a lot of the work to define the actual culture at hand, and they have to be consistent, Notter said.

A manager can’t say one thing but then allow people to act in ways that are converse to what is stated.

Reflect on the tangible elements of your organisation to find the truths about it culture, he said.

The office space, where your manager sits, and which dress code you enforce can all clarify the values on which a workplace situates itself.

“What you need to develop is a clear model for describing to everyone internally how we do it here,” he said.

“What is valued? What is not valued? What does a company emphasise and what does it not care about so much?”

The workplace genome model

Once an employer begins to define its culture, it can fall into a number of traps.

“When you define your culture … you’ll be drawn to defining if your culture is good or bad” at these things, he said.

It’s not helpful to state “we are good at being innovative.”

Instead, Notter said, he’d want to know how an organisation carries out its culture.

Do you employ a traditional management style, or do you put power in the hands of every individual in the organisation?

Notter set up the “Workplace Genome Model”.

Something like “innovation” can be broken down into a number of concepts and actions that can be measured, including creativity, inspiration, permission to hack, risk-taking and experimentation.

The true money, Notter said, is in figuring out how people respond to the action aspect of the definition.

If an organisation says it is innovative, but experimentation rates low on the scale, how is it actually performing any innovation?

“That gives you fodder to do something different,” he said.

Because if you don’t have behaviours in conjunction with concepts, the entire overall notion — innovation — won’t be real.

Engaging in culture change

Notter often gets a lot of pushback when he works with organisations.

One group told him it takes eight years to change a culture, but, he said, you can radically transform a culture in 12 months if an organisation is willing to put in the hard work.

One way to make an actionable plan for culture is to create “culture playbooks,” Notter explained.

A playbook, like in sports, can be adapted, and sometimes a play may fail.

But at the end of the day, it should contain information and experimental plays on a variety of aspects:

Rituals and artefacts

What are the things or aspects of your culture that people do that differentiate you?

A weekly all-hands meeting?

A monthly birthday celebration?

Which of these things bring people together, and which really annoy people?


This trait often comes about through mentorship — who owns the culture?


Who works for you and how do you manage them?

Google’s famous “20 per cent time” — in which 20 per cent of a worker’s time can be spent working on alternative projects — is an example of a talent play.


A lot of HR work is based on processes, so HR has strong potential to make an impact here.

For example, to encourage experiments, post somewhere public the number of experiments going on alongside the number of failures.

And if your failure rate is 0 per cent, “you aren’t doing it right,” Notter said.

An organisation has to make visible that people are experimenting and are also allowed to fail, if it wants to see innovation.


An open office, for example, is a structure that has a set of pluses and minuses that an employer would have to weigh before flatly adopting it for their office on the advice of someone else, Notter said.


Idea and management software are examples of technology-based plays.

Systems in which employees can post ideas and upvote each other can jumpstart an innovating culture, for example, Notter said.

“I want to make culture management a thing,” he said.

An executive would be able to get information on financial management in an organisation at nearly a moment’s notice, but if a manager went to someone and asked, “What cultural priorities have you set this year and how have you moved the needle on them?”, few could likely respond with the same speed, if at all, Notter said.

“We do that in every other part of the business,” he said, “but we don’t do that with culture, and we need to.”

* Kathryn Moody is Editor of HR Dive in Washington, DC. She tweets at @KatMMoody.

This article first appeared at www.hrdive.com.

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