Culture change: A squishy topic but a vital one

The success of a new program or policy almost always comes down to creating a culture of trust and inclusion

Government agencies regularly take on broad initiatives to improve their operations, but the success of a new program or policy almost always depends on an agency’s culture, experts say.

The process of changing an agency’s culture to better engage its workforce can take many forms. For instance, during a recent speech, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry described how he set out to change his agency’s culture from “downtrodden” to “excited.”

“We hold town hall meetings every month and take questions from any employee who has them,” Berry said at a March 16 conference. “We have a labor management forum where we meet with our union leaders twice a month to seek and actually use their ideas.”

He continued, “That’s how you change a culture — not by saying, ‘We’re changing the culture,’ but by actually doing it. Empower and include [employees] through your actions, and they’ll walk through fire for you.”

Berry’s incentive for changing the culture at OPM was simple: He needed people at the agency to get onboard with his vision.

In other instances, agency leaders and managers need to address the culture or environment of their workplace to get employees to embrace a new idea, such as telework. Some experts call that change management while others refer to it more generally as culture change.

Regardless of the terminology, there are steps agency leaders should take to increase the likelihood that new programs will succeed.

First and most important, leaders and managers should prepare for new initiatives by explaining their vision and obtaining employee feedback, said Adam Cole, director of the government practice at the Corporate Executive Board.

“Culture change isn’t something you do to employees, it’s something you do with employees,” Cole said.

He said leaders must create a collaborative front-end process and incorporate employee concerns rather than only communicating downward — with an organizationwide e-mail message, for example.

Second, managers must be prepared to communicate the new initiative by translating organizational values into specific behaviors and activities that employees can undertake. Cole called that stage “preparing the playing field.”

The next phase is monitoring implementation of the new program or policy. Leaders and managers will need to identify barriers and resistance to the change, Cole said. In some cases, resistance might be found in pockets of an organization, in which case the task for the people in charge then becomes how to specifically focus on engaging employees in those areas.

“You figure out who you’re going to engage first, build small successes and then get the whole agency pulling in that direction,” Cole said.

Mandates vs. incentives

David Mader, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, said a major factor of culture change is having managers accept the fact that most of their employees do the right thing. Managers must determine whether to set standards for the majority of employees who do the right thing or the few who don’t. It essentially boils down to trust — or one of the core elements of effective culture, he said.

Mader, who formerly served as assistant deputy commissioner at the Internal Revenue Service, noted that change management is “very amorphous, touchy-feely stuff,” but this “whole idea of [employee] involvement and inclusion is critical to success.”

Agencies sometimes struggle to achieve change because of ineffectual leadership, bad timing or poor behavior management, Cole said.

It is essential to provide employees with the support they need to make the transition, including training, the appropriate infrastructure and accountability/rewards.

Often, leaders drop the ball by not explaining why change is needed and desirable, according to Cole. With telework, for example, “there’s not a lot of focus on why employees should telework and how to enrich the work environment through telework. The focus is on policy.”

Overall, experts agreed that simply handing employees a mandate to change will yield very poor results. They said changing an agency’s culture is an inherently arduous process that ultimately must be done one employee at a time.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

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