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How to change workplace culture

Sue Belgrave

Businesspeople standing around discussing culture

Making people change their workplace behaviour is often an uphill struggle, but sustaining those changes can be even tougher. Sue Belgrave asks if culture change is ever easy

As attention this summer was drawn to the London Olympics, the heat was off the banking sector in the wake of the Barclays crisis. At the height of the media interest, the airwaves were alive with calls for culture change in the financial sector. It’s a message that we’re getting used to hearing – first with newspapers and now with bankers. But what exactly is culture and how easy is it to change?

Culture can be defined simply as “the way we do things round here”. It is the style of clothes people wear, the notices on the notice board, the arrangement of desks/offices/car parks, the way people interact with each other, the conversations at the water cooler and the stories that are told. Each of these is a visible manifestation of culture, derived directly, but often unconsciously, from a set of values and assumptions about the way the world is.

Ringing the changes

It isn’t actually too hard to alter those manifestations or behaviour, even if sometimes they are regarded as hard to change. Given appropriate encouragement, short-term behaviour change is relatively easy: think about driving and how quickly we can change our driving behaviour when a police car or camera comes into view – and how quickly we revert as soon as the police car or camera has passed. To sustain change we have to identify and then change our values and assumptions about ourselves as drivers – that’s much, much harder to do.

None of these groups of people exist in isolation; in some way we have co-created this world in which our moral compass has become confused and so share the responsibility for changing it.

In the financial sector, what are the values and assumptions that have led to the creation of a culture in which, in some areas, inappropriate if not illegal activity has become the norm? Have bankers lost sight of the values they once had? Have their values disappeared under relentless organisational pressure to perform and the personal pressure to achieve ever bigger bonuses? Are their values and assumptions fit for purpose? Do they know any more what it is that banks exist to do?

These are the hard organisational and personal questions that lie at the heart of culture change. In the banking sector, without the answers to these tough questions, no amount of regulation will ever create lasting change.

Practice what you preach

Let’s not become too sanctimonious about bankers/politicians/journalists; we are all in this together. None of these groups of people exist in isolation; in some way we have co-created this world in which our moral compass has become confused and so share the responsibility for changing it.

So it seems that we live with a continuum of dishonesty creating questions about culture at the heart of our society. We have seen recent examples of exaggerated insurance claims, benefit fraud, looting during the riots, fiddling expenses, mis-selling financial products, phone hacking and, of course, most recently, manipulating LIBOR. What percentage of the population has been on that continuum at one time or another?

Has something really happened to our values as a society? The media make choices everyday on what stories to tell and which to ignore. On that basis we could be forgiven for thinking that truly there is “something rotten in the state of…”

And yet at the very same time there was also something truly thought-provoking going on in the UK in the form of the Olympic Torch Relay and the Olympics themselves. For 70 days, 8,000 individuals carried the Olympic torch across the United Kingdom. These individuals have all done something that has motivated colleagues, friends or relatives to sit up and say, “That deserves recognition,” and make a nomination. The torch-bearers, without expecting any reward, did something for others, often making personal sacrifices, and the torch relay motivated 12 million of us to turn up to celebrate their stories with pride.

So we need to look this rottenness in the eye, see it for what it is, recognise that it is, in part, a reflection of what we have become and at the same time ask people to remind themselves of what is possible when a purpose that is about personal greed and vanity is replaced by one that has at its heart the pursuit of the common good.

If it is the case that there needs to be a culture change in banking rather than a sharpening of management focus (although as far as banking is concerned, both might be needed) it is certainly not just about increased regulation. While regulation, like police cars and speed cameras, might stop certain behaviour, lasting change has to be about tough conversation and reconnection with a set of beliefs reflecting an appropriate purpose for both individuals and for our organisations.

Sue Belgrave is an associate of Roffey Park, the internationally renowned leadership institute. For more information please visit


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