You may be able to change habits by instruction and coercion, but if you want to change the culture then you have to find a way for your people to engage with the new ethos.
That was the conclusion of our recent article in which we looked at the introduction of the plastic bag tax in England. A couple of weeks on, we thought we would revisit the topic and see whether the dire predictions of ‘plastic bag chaos’ had been borne out in reality. A quick scan of the media reveals that the answer is somewhere between yes and no.
Certainly talking to staff in a local supermarket, they had not received the level of adverse reaction which they had feared. On the other hand, there are tales across the country of wire shopping baskets going missing in considerable numbers and one reporter was overheard on the radio commenting that like many people they were just carrying on as before and paying the additional 5p.
This last comment perhaps best illustrates the way in which the message has been all about the charge, rather than the underlying reason for the charge. One study estimated that, apart from the time spent sitting in the boot of the car, the average plastic bag is used for just 12 minutes but can then take over 500 years to decompose. In the meantime, the decaying plastic is choking our seas and our landscapes and this can have knock-on effects on wildlife and the food chain.
The government has acted to try and cut down on plastic bag use by imposing a charge and, as has been shown in other regions of the UK, to some extent the policy is likely to be successful. But as long as the publicity is all about the charge rather than the underlying reason then whilst you might change habits, you will not change hearts and minds.
It’s a lesson which many business leaders would do well to take to heart. Culture change is not about standing up and announcing that in future things will be different; nor is it about imposing new working practices, however well-meaning. Yes, you can tell someone that in future they have to collaborate more or engage more and they may even on the surface seem to be following your instructions. But the transformation won’t last long and sooner or later they will slip back into their old ways.
The fact is that no amount of razzmatazz, no grand meetings or big announcements will go anywhere towards speaking to the heart. You may be generating initial reactions but at the same time the message is being lost under the froth of publicity. It is possible to change the culture but success depends on taking your people on the journey, helping them to understand the underlying reason and to assimilate the change into their own deep thoughts and behaviours. If you want people to adopt the idea, help them to engage with the idea.
As leaders, there is one more important step which you have to take if you are to carry your people with you. Quite simply, if you want the change then you have to be the change. Nothing turns people away from an idea quicker than seeing their leaders failing to live up to what they are asking of others.
Can you transform cultures, attitudes and behaviours? Yes you can but only if you seek to promote engagement and alignment rather than obedience. The message is simply this – don’t change because I tell you to change; change because I have helped you to understand.