Your Culture: Is It Working For You, Or Against?

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The research you're not doing may be the most important of all. Let me explain. Traditional perceptual research focuses on members, potential members and employees. Member research can tell you satisfaction, loyalty, competitive positioning, brand identity, product awareness and more. Non-member research can tell you why they don't do business with you; offer financial service preferences and "Wow's" elsewhere and more. And employee research can provide insights into climate, service delivery, process improvements and more. Each of the three primary research types-member, non-member, and employee- is encouraged, and each can provide vital information in managing for success.

All three types, however, depend upon action to be meaningful-action that must be taken by the management and staff of the credit union. Results from all three research types also depend upon change-and change that must be made by the management and staff. Knowing how your organization makes decisions, deals with change, empowers employees, and dictates appropriate behavior will greatly impact flexibility, responsiveness, and ultimately success. Such knowledge can help you leverage your strengths, and gain awareness of and minimize weaknesses. Such knowledge only comes from the key research you are not doing now: analysis and understanding of your organizational culture.

Edgar Schein, the Fortune 100 culture guru, defines organizational (or corporate) culture, as the "shared basic assumptions about the correct way to perceive, feel and act" within the credit union. These can have an unseen but powerful impact on the success-or failure-of current or proposed programs (such as sales or incentive programs, levels of individual empowerment, initiative or accountability, team cooperation, or any program that is or may experience "push-back" from the staff).

Think about it for a moment. There are "rules of engagement" at your credit union about how to act (e.g., confident, deferential, dependent), how to think (e.g., service-first, profit-first, team-or boss-first) and even how to feel (e.g., pride, embarrassment, anger) when faced with a conflict or decision. I encourage you to stop reading and ask yourself, "When is it appropriate to take initiative at my credit union?" "To challenge a current process?" "To look for improvements?" "To innovate?" And when is it not?

If you don't know these rules at your organization, you are at a disadvantage. Why? The success of a new initiative may rest on whether it works with-or against-your organizational culture: the underlying rules and assumptions that drive employee behavior.

Take, for example, sales culture initiatives so prevalent among credit unions today. The vast majority is ineffective, I would argue, because they work against the prevailing culture. In reality, credit unions fail because they are actually trying to integrate a sales program into an existing organizational culture that is not sales-driven. It's like putting the proverbial round peg in a square hole: no matter how hard you push, it simply won't fit.

Can Cultures Really Be Changed?

Can cultures be changed? Yes. By changing what the organization collectively finds successful. And not just outwardly successful. Asking for "faith" in the new program is not enough. Change has to come from a newly inspired deep level of understanding and agreement-a tacit level of commitment-such that new, underlying and unconscious assumptions about the "right" ways to act, think, and feel are accepted. Cultures are developed over years as the result of successful decisions and actions that are shared and collectively reinforced. Culture change comes from awareness, "unfreezing" the current beliefs, and "re-freezing" the new ones. Promoting individuals who embrace the new culture, bringing in outsiders, and rewarding desired change are just a few ways to encourage the process.

Cultures are not inherently good or bad, but do have components that can work for or against initiatives. Yes, there are some cultural factors that you may wish to change because they are generally counterproductive. The true value in becoming culturally aware, however, resides in the insights into your strengths that you can leverage and expand upon.

Regardless of the components of your culture, knowing their identity can help you enhance your success. If one of your cultural components is that employees lack trust in the motives of (let's say, the prior) senior management, then you would introduce any new initiative differently than if trust were inherent. If the culture is such that initiative has never previously been rewarded (and punitive action was the most likely result of even the most noble of rule-breaking), then initiatives for empowerment necessarily need a different structure than that of a credit union with a more innovative culture.

When is a culture analysis of greatest value? Three scenarios:

(1) Disequilibrium in a current program (e.g., challenges with growth or profitability, or conflict from staff "push-back" in implementing a new program) and/or

(2) Introduction of new initiatives or organizational change (e.g., sales culture, incentive programs, need to leave the "comfort zone," etc.), and/or

(3) Organizational transition: change in management, consideration/evaluation of a merger, succession planning or introduction of new department or function within the organization.

In each case above, change is needed. A key question: To what extent is the underlying culture a factor-pro or con? And a follow up question: How can you leverage your knowledge of the culture to your credit union's greatest advantage?

One way of course is to bring in a consultant/facilitator to conduct a culture assessment workshop with your management team. In a recent workshop we recently conducted, a credit union was able to identify the nine key underlying cultural assumptions driving the credit union and to use them as a guide in its annual initiatives, projects and management plans.

But you can also take steps to assess the culture yourself. An exceptional resource is, Organizational Culture and Leadership, by Edgar Schein, a long read but full of examples and processes. A more immediate step is to ask players at various levels to anonymously answer questions about what are the unspoken rules and conversations at your organization.

You can also ask those who are perhaps the most insightful evaluators of your culture-the newest members of your team who have not yet fully assimilated the underlying assumptions unconsciously. They are still in the observing mode, and can most objectively tell you what they see.

A key to remember is that there are three layers of culture. First are the artifacts that you can see that represent what is valued at the organization (office space utilization, meeting length, mission/vision statements, who comprises senior management and why, etc.). Second are the espoused values, why you think and/or say you do what you do (we do such and such because we value employees, or the knowledge of our volunteers, or because we believe in planning). The third and final level of culture is the underlying assumptions that truly drive how to act, think, and feel. It is here we find the true cultural factors, and they stem from looking at the artifacts and espoused values and objectively asking why we really do what we do. Look at what you are doing at your organization, and what you say about why you do it. Then ask, honestly, is that really why we do it? Like the child who asks "why, why, why, and why"... when you run out of answers and reach the bottom level explanation-only then have you truly unearthed your culture.

Culture is to your organization like branding is to your membership. Whereas brand is held in the minds of your current and potential account holders, culture is held in the minds of your management and staff. And like brand, culture can work for and against you, and may impact every initiative, program and/or desired change at the credit union. The starting point is assessment and understanding. The starting point is cultural assessment research. And cultural assessment research is the most important research you're not now conducting.

Neil Goldman is president of Member Research a market research and consulting firm serving hundreds of credit unions nationally. Neil can be reached at ngoldman or 310-643-5910.

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