A Secret Weapon in Changing Organizational Culture

Training and professional development programs are ripe resources for creating transformation.

by Stephanie AlKhafaji, Children's Home Association of Illinois
Stephanie AlKhafaji

It’s no secret that changing an organization’s culture is a tremendous undertaking. It requires patience and consistency, and for organizations looking to become more innovative, it is often one of the most difficult components of their transformation. Perhaps this is because culture is nuanced and complex. Or maybe it’s because culture is not a tangible edict bestowed upon employees. Regardless of the reasoning, transforming the culture of an organization is a difficult exercise in fluidity. 

Transforming Cultural Fabric
For many senior leaders, tackling such an ambiguous challenge is not only intimidating, it can feel frivolous. When ROI is top of mind, it seems counterproductive to spend time thinking about how employees are relating to one another. How are they interacting? How are they feeling about their individual contributions, and the work of the organization at large? What types of workplace behaviors are manifesting as a result of their headspace? The answers to these questions, however, make up the very fabric of an organization’s culture. 

Because culture is so deeply engrained in employee behavior, the work of transforming it must follow a similar approach. Simply calling Fridays “Fun Friday” does not necessarily make them fun, and placing a ping pong table in the break room doesn’t mean anyone will use it. Rather, leaders should consider which of their existing systems and processes might serve as a catalyst for incremental, sustainable behavior change. In other words, leadership should start thinking more seriously about their internal training and development efforts. 

A Canvas for Change
Most business leaders don’t need to be convinced that internal training and professional development are of utmost importance. They are quantifiable in nature and geared toward bettering employee output. This enhanced output, in turn, improves the organization’s bottom line. On top of that, training and development programs are typically widespread, covering everything from safety and risk management to personality assessments and small group communication. In other words, the focus areas of an internal training department permeate every nook and cranny of the organization. They serve as the perfect canvas to covertly infuse elements of a desired culture. 

Training, by nature, is an exercise in behavior change. Whether you are trying to standardize a process or improve a product, the result is an employee who now functions differently. It is critical that senior leaders not overlook the importance of leveraging systems that yield sustainable change. When effective, training programs offer repeated exposure and a rationale that encourages buy-in. Employees are much more likely to buy into a new set of behaviors when they understand why they are being asked to change. 

Rooted in Purpose
Finally, the curriculum of an effective training program is deeply rooted in the organization’s purpose. This purpose dictates the types of trainings that are mandated, which are optional, and which don’t even make the agenda. Because of this, we can think of training as an opportunity to create momentum, rather than a mandated set of HR policies. It is this very momentum that senior leaders should capitalize on. They should not only explain the organizational purpose and the behaviors needed to support it, they should feel a deep responsibility to insist employees buy in. Each training program and professional development exercise is an opportunity to underscore these values. 

In the lifecycle of an organization, culture can and should change over time. This change is best led from the top of the organization. However, leaders should not overlook the systems and processes currently in place that may act as potential catalysts. Internal training and development departments are ripe resources for creating change because they permeate all facets of the organization, are designed to produce behavior change, and are rooted in the organization’s underlying mission and purpose. PM

Stephanie AlKhafaji is director of development and strategic communications at Children's Home Association of Illinois.

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