How CIOs Can Lead Organizational Culture

CIOs can use these three steps to successfully shape their organizational culture.

At Imperial College London, the CIO was transitioning his team from waterfall to agile methodology when he discovered a serious workplace culture problem. 

Employee engagement was low. He was having trouble getting his staff members to own their inclusion goals. Top-down messaging and bias education efforts weren’t doing enough. Clearly, success required more than emails from leadership and mandatory training modules — the business needed broad, deep and sustained behavioral change. 

When traditional ways of influencing company culture aren’t enough, what can a CIO do to inspire sustained behavioral change? The first step is understanding what “culture” means.

By 2021, CIOs will be as responsible for leading workplace culture as their peers in HR

“Organizational culture is the expression of our combined daily behaviors that are constantly changing and interacting,” says Suzanne Adnams, Vice President Analyst, Gartner. “Each behavior is guided by a unique combination of values, mindsets and practices.”

By 2021, CIOs will be as responsible for leading workplace culture as their peers in HR. But to do that, CIOs must understand how these values, mindsets and practices intersect. Leaders have direct influence over how these three facets affect behaviors to shape the culture. They must also put a tactical strategy into place so that positive behaviors are identified, modeled,  encouraged and rewarded.

Read more: CIO Agenda 2020: Is Your Culture Adaptable?

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Communicate consistent, strategy-aligned organizational values 

Workplace values guide decision making, relationships and behaviors. Organizational values must be consistent with organizational goals, and must be reflected in leaders’ daily decisions and behaviors. Missing or inconsistent leadership modeling of values undermines workplace culture and can harm broader strategic objectives. 

“Organizations that have not established consistent and strategy-aligned values cannot expect to see consistent and positive workplace behaviors,” says Adnams. “CIOs looking to influence culture should be first concerned with the values of the IT organization. If these group values are not clearly understood, then personal values will become the basis of individual decisions and actions.”

CIOs should objectively evaluate their own behaviors and practices, and those of their direct reports

Tactical, candid conversations with stakeholders across the workplace can help. Identify gaps and problem areas together, and share your concerns with functional leaders. Next, determine  which values and behaviors map to the organization’s desired culture and broader goals. 

Most importantly, demonstrate yourself the behaviors you want to see in others and socialize it when employee behavior meets or exceeds your expectations.

Read more: Make Culture a Priority for an Agile Organization

Understand and influence employee mindsets

With only 13% of HR leaders reporting that employees believe strongly in an organization’s desired culture, it’s fair to say that most CIOs don’t really understand what their employees are thinking. And although it’s true that most CIOs won’t have time to get to know everyone in their IT organization personally, they are still responsible for the culture within that organization. Therefore, CIOs should model accepting, inclusive behavior at all times.

“Creating a work environment that promotes personal acceptance and inclusion helps staff feel safe enough to share their mindsets and be open with each other,” Adnams says. 

Involving all stakeholders using an “open source” approach in one tactic to ensure authenticity and to promote engagement in culture shaping. Sharing lessons from failures and modeling self-awareness are some of the many critical behaviors you can adopt to make yourself more approachable.  

Ensure practices, processes and tools align with organizational values

When practices don’t align with stated values, culture change initiatives are doomed to fail. 

“Changing how organizations operate has a much greater positive impact on aligning the workforce to the organization’s desired culture,” Adnams says. “Any behavior, habit or routine will continue to persist as long as there is something in the environment that rewards and reinforces that continued action.” 

Established routines that are inconsistent or counter-productive to the desired culture are sometimes so ingrained in employees’ behavior that it can be difficult for internal stakeholders to identify the problem. CIOs should objectively evaluate their own behaviors and practices, and those of their direct reports, to uncover challenges. 

Execute tactical culture hacks to raise awareness, share organizational goals and break the “reward” cycle

Even then, it can be extremely difficult to identify problem behaviors. Working with an independent partner outside of the organization may help surface long-unchallenged, yet still detrimental, habits. Then you can execute tactical culture hacks to raise awareness, share organizational goals and break the “reward” cycle that perpetuates negative behaviors. Once you do those three things, you’re well on your way to redefining the culture inside your organization.

At Imperial College London, the CIO implemented the Active Bystander program. Active Bystander directly influenced the values, mindsets and practices of workforce members and led to greater inclusion. Social learning and personal accountability success stories were promoted and rewarded, breaking the cycle of unwanted behavior.  

Read more: Learn the Art of Culture Hacking

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