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September 21, 2016

The case for culture change

image of office workers standing around a project together

By Bethany Romano

“The way we accomplish our goals, no matter how lofty they are, is through organizations. And if they are not working well, we waste a lot of effort,” says professor Jody Hoffer Gittell, founder and executive director of the Relational Coordination Research Collaborative.

A lot of that wasted effort can be traced to a very simple problem: the need for high-quality relationships that allow us to work effectively across silos. Gittell’s research shows that organizations perform better when employees from different departments and areas of expertise are connected through high-quality communication, shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect, based on a theory she calls relational coordination (RC).

“The quality and frequency of communication between employees, the presence or absence of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect — each of these are measurable and actionable. You can structure a change process around them,” says Gittell. The RC survey she originally developed as a research tool allows change agents to quantify relationship dynamics in their organizations, work to transform them and measure progress over time.

Gittell has written in depth about organizations that successfully and unsuccessfully demonstrate RC, most notably in her books “The Southwest Airlines Way” and “High Performance Healthcare.” “I got a lot of phone calls to give talks about that work, but then people started to ask, ‘How can we do that?’ And it turns out it’s really hard to get there,” says Gittell. Although managers can enact simple fixes in hiring practices and reward structures, changing an entire set of professional relationships requires more than structural interventions.

“So I became really curious about how it happens,” Gittell says. She began to investigate organizations currently undergoing cultural change efforts using RC, ultimately selecting four in-depth case studies as the subject for
her fifth book, “Transforming Relationships for High Performance: The Power of Relational Coordination.”

“I interviewed people throughout these organizations, asked them to reflect on the changes underway and tried to answer the question: How do you unlock and unfreeze a culture? These organizations wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t ready to change, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

image of jody hoffer gittell book cover

In many instances, Gittell found that measurement really helped bridge a conversation between people who think in qualitative terms and those who prefer quantitative data. Although RC is about relationships and can be understood in a qualitative way, “The power of RC is that it can be quantified, and it has been linked with hard outcomes,” she says. “Organizations with strong relational coordination do tend to perform better.”

Relational coordination enables managers and employees to challenge traditional workplace cultures and hierarchies of privilege. In the book, readers gain access to the gritty details of organizational culture change and the impact it can have on performance. “For example, in a hospital setting,” Gittell says, “everything feels like it’s set up to meet the needs of the surgeons, even though every other function is also essential. If you don’t have a clean room in which to do surgery, that’s life-threatening. But to the clinical team, that work is often invisible. Making that work visible is hard to do — but it has a huge impact on culture and outcomes.”

This story originally appeared in the fall 2016 Heller Social Policy Impact Report. We invite you to view the report online or download a PDF of the report. 

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