The word “moribund” carries with it connotations of stagnation, decline, and ultimately decay. Regrettably it is a word that can readily be applied to many organisational cultures. They are the organisations that suck the verve, panache, drive, and determination from their staff. The sort of places where fear, or lassitude, can dominate any attempt to introduce revitalising innovation.

I have had the fortune, or misfortune, to see organisations in all the phases of what I call the ‘moribund journey’. From the initial creation of a stultifying bureaucratic culture; to the tail-spinning stage whereby the employment brand is so bad that the enterprise can only attract people who have attitudes that make matters worse; to the organisation’s ultimate failure as it fails to adapt to increasing challenges.

Uplift a dying corporate culture with the Theory of Planned Behaviour

Yet, it is not all bad news. I have also had the fortune to see energetic leaders turn moribund organisations around. So, what is needed to revitalise such a culture? One way to approach this problem is to begin with the basics of a well-tested psychological concept known as the Theory of Planned Behaviour, or TPB.

This theory, based on the work of social psychologists Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen, suggests that people will behave in a certain way whenever they:

  • have a positive feeling about the behaviour in question,
  • think others will approve of it, and
  • believe that they can actually do what is required.

Positive thinking

One way to start applying this thinking to cultural transformation is to hire and retain people who can see that behaving in the organisation’s best interests is an inherently good thing. For example, if you want people to be great bankers, it pays to make sure that they understand the critical economic, and ultimately social, role of banking. For leaders to change behaviours such that staff genuinely act in the interests of the enterprise, it makes sense to convince staff that the enterprise deserves a future – one to which they can make individual contributions.

Societal approval

TPB implies that you not only have to convince staff members of the inherent value of the mission, but also those in their social and emotional orbit. This may even mean convincing society at large. This has been an inherent problem for banking – telling the story that they do actually perform an essential social service. It is in fact true that banks move funds from those with the money to those who can use it to develop a healthier economy. Whilst this might not be the sexiest message about banking, it happens to be a simple but worthy mission.

However, I am not here to defend banking, but to make the essential point that for people to truly behave in the organisation’s interests, they need to think positively about that behaviour. So, for example, if you want them to behave collaboratively for the good of the whole, then they need to believe that is inherently a good idea, and that important people in their lives would approve of their actions, because the organisation is worth the effort.

Belief in skills

Yet there is an important final point to be drawn from TPB, being that staff also need to believe that they can actually deliver on the expected behaviours. For example, if you want people to listen, not just talk, then you need to help people learn to execute what is actually a tricky interpersonal skill. Furthermore, you will need to role model the behaviour, compliment it when you witness it, and express confidence in their ability to deliver on this important competency.

So, while there is much more to successful cultural change than can be addressed in a brief article, there are some essential lessons drawn from Fishbein & Ajzen’s social psychological research. Convince people of the value of the organisation, be they staff or people important to your staff. Then convince them that positive behaviours contribute to the enterprise’s mission, and help them believe they can live up to the expected standards. Leaders deal with human beings, and human beings deal in beliefs. If you want to change behaviour, then change beliefs about behaviours.

See the original article published in CEO Magazine here.

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Roger Perry is the Managing Director of the Bevington Group, and one of the region’s foremost productivity improvement and organisational design experts. He has been an Assignment Director and Steering Committee member on over 40 transformation programs.