How to use culture to guide your organisation through change

Written by Emma Molloy Wednesday 27 October 2021
The strength of your culture will anchor your organisation through any period of profound change, explains Prudential’s CHRO
An image of a group of employees working together

Even without the pandemic, it’s been a complex time recently for global insurance giant Prudential. A series of major corporate transactions has seen it demerge its US business, retain a London base, and focus its activity more sharply in Asia and Africa.

Steering the company through such profound change has been a challenge for the company’s senior management, and Prudential’s CHRO Jolene Chen has been one of those at the helm throughout, as she explains in a recent webinar from global research advisory practice HSM Advisory, who have been working with Jolene through Prudential’s period of change.

Whether completing a demerger or exploring new ways of working, many managers and leaders currently find their teams and organisations in a place of change. “A lot of our work at the moment is around supporting managers on how to redesign work,” says Lynda Gratton, founder of HSM Advisory and professor of management practice at London Business School.

Stability during change

Of course, phases of any type of change in an organisation can be destabilising. However, “while it can feel like the ground beneath us is shifting, there are some things that can anchor us back to a point of stability,” reassures Sally McNamara, Asia-Pacific director at HSM Advisory.

One of these things, say Jolene, Lynda and Sally, is company culture. A focus on culture as an anchor has been very important to the transformational work done by Prudential, even pre-pandemic, explains Jolene.

To use your company’s culture as a stabilising force in a whirlwind of change, they suggest three key strategies to help you succeed.

1. Create a narrative

“Create narratives that help people make sense of what is and isn’t changing,” says Sally. “These need to be four things: transparent, acknowledging the realities; co-creational, with a two-way dialogue; enduring, with a sense of purpose and meaning for the future; and composed, with a sense of calm and stability,” she adds.

Prudential now uses a narrative of the body to symbolise and explain the key pillars of their company culture: “Ambition is our headspace; how can we think and dream bigger? Curiosity is our eyes – how do we see the changing world around us?,” explains Jolene. The other three values of empathy, courage and nimbleness are linked to the heart, gut and feet.

“This is how we position our culture so it’s easier to understand,” says Jolene. “It took a while for people to get used to the new values, but we’ve got there. We also put 200 leaders into this programme [about our new values] to better understand the process themselves and cascade it down the organisation.”

2. Set clear expectations

“You need to show all the boundaries, not just the positive ones, but the unacceptable ones,” says Lynda. “The more people describe the micro-behaviours – what exactly we do and don’t want you to do – it’s really helpful.”

For example, Prudential explained to their employees what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the context of their values. In terms of Empathy, people are encouraged to “stop, think and reflect on how to be more empathetic,” says Jolene. This includes listening to others, assuming people are doing the best they can, and thinking about how decisions affect the customer. In contrast, unacceptable behaviours include interrupting and not building on what has been said.

It’s important to set boundaries and call out any unacceptable behaviour that contradicts expectations: “In one talk I went to [at another company], the leader would stop the meeting whenever someone was interrupted and say, ‘This isn’t acceptable’,” explains Lynda.

3. Co-create the change

Prudential created these pillars and expectations together with their workforce, and this intra-organisational collaboration with all levels of the business is essential in making culture an anchoring force.

“Move from communication to dialogue and empower your people to be part of the change,” says Sally. “Employees now have an expectation to be consulted and if they’re not, it’s not well received – you will face underground resistance. It also brings in diversity of views when you give everyone the chance to have a voice.”

“If you think there’s too much uncertainty and fatigue to bring people together, this is actually the perfect time to do it so that people can support each other,” she continues. “Connecting back to the why and the purpose of our work is really important if people are feeling fatigued.”

Inviting people to participate in a dialogue together can build on insights from traditional surveys: “[With surveys] people only answer the question that you ask them,” explains Lynda. Prudential used HSM’s signature Collaboration Jam tool – a real-time, online conversation platform that can be held with up to 500,000 individuals – to consult its 14,000-strong workforce. “What I have learned in Collaboration Jams is that people in a crowd talk about things that you didn’t anticipate,” says Lynda.

“I thought it was quite a courageous move [for Prudential] because it’s quite difficult to open up a conversation to thousands of people because of the possibility of negative comments, but [they] actually got the chance to hear what people thought,” she continues.

“A few things stood out,” says Jolene. “Firstly, two-way, honest communication was key for our success, and I think this was a result of the jam. Secondly, in some Asian cultures, there is an innate fear of speaking up. We managed to address this.”

“What you see today is not us alone, it’s really what resonated with the employees,” continues Jolene. “This has made it easier to implement the change and the values that we have.”

This co-creation and definition is what brings the organisation together and allows change to happen, as Jolene confirms: “The purpose and values resonated with people, we defined what it means for the business – it then becomes something you do on a daily basis.”

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Image: Shutterstock/Kostiantyn Voitenko

Emma Molloy is a writer, editor and translator. She loves words, especially in different languages, and will never turn down a chance to learn something new.

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