As a learning and development (L&D) leader, you’ve been asked to play a part in the culture change that needs to take place in your organization. But what’s your role? Where do you fit, and what should you do?

Taking a step back to clarify what culture is and what it takes to shift it are essential to playing an effective role. You’re not working in isolation here; you’re part of a system that, as a whole, is shifting its culture.

Is Everyone Clear on What Culture Is?

It may seem basic, but before you start, ask around to ensure there is a consistent understanding of what culture is and isn’t. Don’t avoid this step, as without a standard definition, “culture” can mean different things to different people.

Culture is represented by the behaviors and decision-making of an organization, including expectations, assumptions, perceptions, norms, habits and influences. The best shorthand definition is that culture is a set of values that everyone can use as a compass for “how things are around here.”

Culture isn’t only about mood (“Are employees happy?”). It’s wider, deeper and more lasting. Culture is most practically represented by a set of values all colleagues can remember and use as a guide for how to behave, work and make decisions as part of this organization.

Culture is core to how the business operates and performs; it’s not an add-on or a “nice-to-have.” People run businesses, so how they behave impacts the performance of their businesses. As a result, culture must align with strategy to underpin what the organization needs to deliver; there’s no point in having a disruptive, innovative culture if your strategy is to maintain and defend market positions and deliver through slow, continuous improvement. This misalignment could create confusion or even conflict.

Don’t forget to familiarize yourself with why your organization’s culture needs to shift, how big the gap is between where it is and where it needs to be, and where the tricky areas are. As an L&D leader, this understanding will help you hone in on the real issues.

How Does Culture Shift?

Culture change takes time (since it’s about forming new habits), it won’t be precise (since it’s about human behavior rather than a controlled experiment in a lab) and it can’t be done to a person by someone else. It does take coordination to ensure the overall environment is conducive to providing both the sticks and the carrots to influence employees to shift those habits and behaviors.

Think of culture change as a set of dials that need to work in harmony to find the right balance:

  • Clear messaging
  • Leaders who practice and espouse what they are asking of everyone else
  • Shifting processes, policies and practices to amplify and reinforce the expected culture
  • Communications that symbolize what is required for the new culture
  • Volunteer change agents across the organization who add momentum at all levels
  • Decisions that start to use not just the strategy but the culture as well as the basis for support.

Someone needs to oversee all of these dials to ensure they’re working together consistently and aren’t just a mass of random activity. L&D plays an important part in helping to deepen and reinforce how culture is core to business performance and to embed its consistent application.

How Does L&D Play Its Part?

Let’s assume you aren’t the person overseeing those dials, but your role is the functional expert: applying your L&D skills to make a difference. Here are some tips that will help.

Don’t restrict your thinking to the one audience (learners), but think more broadly.

  • How can you use your understanding of how people learn and develop to help the person leading the change to shape the plan?
  • When the communications team and change agents are communicating new cultural expectations and engaging employees around them, how can you use your expertise to ensure that they create and deliver attention-grabbing and engaging sessions to raise awareness and understanding?

Don’t scrimp on the core functional role.

  • In development programs for high-potential and senior leaders, include sessions that focus on cultural dilemmas. The people who cast the longest shadow in the organization need the most intense help to practice espousing and living the culture. What interests the leaders fascinates everyone else; do it right, and the good stuff is amplified.
  • Weave references to culture (both the importance of it and the content of it) into any program you are developing or running. Put the course in the context of where the whole organization is heading — which means strategy and culture together. Never miss an opportunity to ground learning in the big picture.
  • Don’t separate culture as a separate program (beyond initial engagement sessions), unless it is within ethics and compliance training that focus solely on behavioral and decision-making dilemmas. This training is the ideal place to work through the specifics on culture. Values and culture work hand in hand. Ask people to talk about the issues and work through examples.

Beyond the Classroom

Of course, the L&D leader is also a member of the organization and, like everyone else, has an impact on the culture every day, whether conscious or not. How are you working within the cultural expectations every day? Do you refer to them and give others the sense that they are important for performance? Never forget to look in the mirror to check that you are being consistent with the culture whose creation you’re supporting.