Looking for cultural transformation? Look to the top first. And if you are in senior leadership yourself, try finding it in the mirror.
Any business masquerading as having a winning culture when really it is defensive, aggressive and unauthentic, is really only projecting a disguise. The Board and the Senior Executive are only fooling themselves. Nearly everyone else both inside and outside the business can see through this pretence.
It is like the Board and Senior Executive are inviting their workers and stakeholders to a gathering in which everyone is expected to ‘play their part’ to uphold the façade. Those unable to compete with an aggressive approach, will start to display a passive style to appease the aggressor and to try to protect or support those around them who also feel unable to have a satisfying workplace relationship with dominating, dictatorial managers.
To the Board and Senior Executive they start to see a workplace that lacks creativity and that ‘have a go energy’. So they promote or bring in Managers like themselves who are stoic and who will get the job done regardless, but really are just adding to an oppressive culture that only continues to stifle it’s workers.
The approaches that excite the Board, Senior Executives and Managers who tend to have a similar style, are often strategies that do not motivate the general and larger populace of their workforce. When the Board and Senior Executive choose only to seek feedback from those who support their approach to business and dismiss the growing research (about what defines good workplace culture and the economic and non economic gains that can result), they perpetuate a culture which does not harness the abundant ability present but lying dormant in their workers.
I have worked with large organisations in delivering cultural change initiatives. I have generally had two types of experiences:
Both situations delivered success. However success came more quickly and more richly to those in group 2.
In group 1 settings, success was achieved because in each situation, a large section of Managers below the Senior Executive level were included in the program and through the program they became united in their commitment to change the culture for themselves and their staff using agreed strategies to do so.
This included how they managed upwards as well as downwards and across. Those who changed their leadership and management in a 360 degree fashion inadvertently created a workplace in which the Managers who didn’t want to change felt uncomfortable and left the organisation. Although it took some time, and certainly was not an easy journey, their united constructive actions influenced the Senior Executive to be more accountable for their behavioural approaches.
This ground swell continued and soon some Senior Executives started applying pressure to their own peers to move with the cultural change happening before them. From the Senior Executives who did not support such change, we actually saw heightened or exaggerated negative behaviours and this led the Board to act and force early closures to some Executive employment contracts.
In group 2 settings, success in terms of cultural transformation has always come more swiftly. Ben Crowe, once the youngest director at Nike and a close friend of Andre Agassi, tells how powerful a public show of ‘buy in’ by the CEO can be.
“Crowe says he recently worked with the CEO of a global, publicly listed apparel company whose bottom line – and culture – was "tanking". The leader got up and apologised to his entire workforce for being defensive and closed off. "And as soon as he did that, he normalised imperfection and vulnerability and created a safe environment for everyone. It led to the most amazing cultural transformation, simply through him taking off his disguise."
Leaders don’t have to reveal their imperfections and vulnerabilities to achieve cultural transformation. But it is preferred that they at least are prepared to call out their own behaviours which have impeded the business from having a constructive workplace culture. And we all know that a spoonful of gratitude and a sincere apology from those in the Senior Ranks helps culture change initiatives move forward in the most delightful way.
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