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When Leadership Gets In The Way Of A Cultural Turnaround

The Situation Imagine yourself as a senior-level leader in an organization that has become distrustful of its more senior leadership, including you. You work diligently every day, trying to get all required activity accomplished with people that are both disillusioned and, worse yet, disengaged. There are complaints about lack of support from above, which you have come to recognize and agree with over time. Despite this discontentment, any new direction is unwelcome by the organization. Matters have worsened as the current state of the culture has deteriorated to a point where leaders doubt that any efforts will be able to correct the organization’s direction and re-route the culture to a pathway of success. This situation existed in a large organization in which employees were overwhelmingly unhappy with the current state of the culture. Not everyone was always treated with respect, and some employees were holding these hurt feelings under the surface of their daily interactions. The stifling organizational culture became evident through engagement surveys, operational metrics, and employee performance criteria. There seemed to be no clear route to establish a positive fundamental change in the culture. All efforts that were meant to improve the environment were met with pushback and therefore failed to gain enough traction and support to generate any real positive impact or long-term change.

A Surprising Discovery Nevertheless, not everyone in the organization had completely lost hope. Though many individuals were disengaged, they were still willing to voice their displeasure. Moreover, although the group as a whole was seemingly dysfunctional, they still cared for each other and their operation. They wanted things to be better and yearned for a time when they had more ability to influence not just what was accomplished but how it was accomplished. They remained hopeful of the possibility of improvement for their organization and persistently asked for changes to be made.

The Opportunity The description of the situation is one of crisis. It was a crisis of leadership and a crisis of an organization not being resilient to face the challenges of the future. Thankfully, grit was still apparent in the way employees continued to take pride in their work. However, the marketplace was changing for the organization’s product, and the people could not imagine what they could do collectively to face any impending adverse outcome. Fear is a detrimental reaction to changes of any sort. As John P. Kotter stated in his book The Heart of Change, people “do little to help start a change effort because we feel powerless to do so….In some situations, the constraints and lack of power are overwhelming. Nevertheless, action is often possible.” In this case, the action came from a critical mass of employees being willing to pivot. As Robert E. Quinn states in his book The Positive Organization, where the leader “allows the personal to become public,” it “is the act of responsibility that initiates cultural change and reforms organizations.”

Reflection The senior-level leader of the organization reflected upon his behaviors which were holding back the cultural shift that lower-level employees desired for the entire organization. The following are actions that were taken to move the organization toward a new culture. First, the leader took on the challenge of admitting things could be better and then recognized his involvement in the faltering organization and the lack of change despite consistent complaints and disengagement. Next, a practice of listening to everyone in the organization was embraced. Employees at all levels of the organization who wanted to participate in the culture shift were included. Employees were invited to participate in workgroups to discuss how to improve the way in which work was accomplished. This included built-in time to work on issues outside of their daily tasks. Giving everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions created a sense of collective strength and inclusion. As leaders listened and employees were given the opportunity to impact their own work, cultural change began to occur. The intent was to incorporate a practice into their daily work that would give employees who were most affected by the issues the ability to help resolve them. No issue was off-limits. Every issue raised was addressed in some form. There were people that refused to participate. But those that were willing were supported and recognized for the positive behaviors envisioned in the new culture.

As Jane E. Dutton and Monica C. Worline state in their book  Awakening Compassion at Work , “When we identify with others, we are more likely to feel empathy for them and more willing to take compassionate action on their behalf.”  The action of working together at all levels on an important issue that others have raised clearly demonstrates empathy and compassion. When trust across levels is built, respect for others’ individual contributions is increased. Hope returns, and a vision of a collective future can be articulated.

Tips 1) It is difficult to change course on a defective culture without inspiration. A leader cannot generally do this on their own. Support from the most senior leadership team is essential and a deep sense of commitment to change is important. 2) Taking the opportunity to begin a conversation with a team of people who are disengaged and perhaps angry is difficult. Do not expect the employee base to begin this conversation. 3) It is best to have a roadmap of where you are and how you want to proceed. Gather a group together that is willing to participate in the development of a new vision for the culture of the organization. Let them help build the vision for the future; not everything should fall on one individual alone. Let early adopters influence others to join in the momentum that is being built. 4) There will be trust issues. Build-in some easy actions to achieve early success. Show the involvement is real and highly encouraged and explain that this is an important step in the change, of course, that is underway. Follow through at every step. A misstep early on will be devastating to the trust being built. 5) Take time to communicate. Communicate what you are going to do, communicate while you are doing it, and then communicate and celebrate when things are accomplished. Celebrate with everyone. Keep in mind that although you are tired of the message you are communicating, it is possible that others are just starting to hear it. 6) Sustainability should be planned for and built into the effort from the beginning. The systems, procedures, and practices should be aligned with the culture being built. It is easier to create change one action at a time and to view these efforts as part of a project as opposed to a new way of accomplishing work. Culture change is dependent upon adopting the manner in which things get done, not just the accomplishment. Some most intransient people will simply hold out until this change process is integrated into the organization’s normal business to point out flaws in sustaining the implementation.

Culture Is Not A Given Culture should not be thought of as a static condition of an organization. Many things change over time. The worst outcome is when the people of an organization assume that the best of what they want in their culture will always be there without deliberately working to maintain it. Care for the culture is accentuated by caring for each other.


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