Companies worldwide are launching interventions to create innovative organizational cultures that support effective responses to shifts in their business environments. But many well-intentioned programs aimed at cultural change fail to affect employees in a meaningful way, leaving organizations unfit for transformation despite having invested hundreds or even thousands of employee hours.
Unlike most types of culture initiatives, a skills-based approach can more effectively infuse new culture components into scale-ups and international incumbents alike. This approach is particularly effective for developing what many refer to as soft skills, such as perspective taking. This ability to step outside one’s own perspective to understand another person’s point of view, motivations, and emotions helps build a psychologically safe environment in which people dare to share ideas and unfiltered information.1
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The most important aspect of a skills-based approach to culture change is quickly linking newly acquired soft skills to bottom-line results and progress on tough, important challenges. As described in the Harvard Business School case “Leading Culture Change at SEB,” teams that learned and applied such skills to real-life business challenges at the financial services company created momentum for culture change. Members of the first team that participated in the training program at SEB said that the strategies they learned helped them get past a crucial strategic challenge they had been struggling with for years. Another SEB team noted that the training led to increases in customer acquisitions and market share. And one executive-level participant said, “The results came quicker than we expected … in the shape of quicker decisions, better decisions … [for] problems that had been around for a long time. We were able to solve them relatively quickly.”
The skills-based approach rests on two important frameworks. The first is the late Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model, in which culture builds upon a foundation of basic underlying assumptions — employees’ shared assumptions about what drives successful outcomes to challenges in their organization’s specific context. Underlying assumptions — the ultimate source of values and action — are so deeply embedded that employees behave in accordance with them without thinking about it. Changing culture, then, requires a basis of new assumptions. (See “Edgar Schein’s Organizational Culture Model.”)
1. A.C. Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2018); and I.J. Hoever, D. van Knippenberg, W.P. van Ginkel, et al., “Fostering Team Creativity: Perspective Taking as Key to Unlocking Diversity’s Potential,” Journal of Applied Psychology 97, no. 5 (September 2012): 982-996.
2. N.P. Repenning and J.D. Sterman, “Capability Traps and Self-Confirming Attribution Errors in the Dynamics of Process Improvement,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June 2002): 265-295.