Steve Vinter and Deval Patrick play ping pong at Google office. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Shaping a culture is possible, if hard work. And, because culture is “the way we do things around here”, every person in a group shapes the culture of the group to some extent. So, no matter where you sit in an organization, what can you do to shape your culture so it’s future-proof and not just ready for change but creating it?
Focus on the goal
The culture isn’t the goal. The behaviors aren’t the goal. The goal is what you’re trying to achieve. It might be to enter a new market or to hire 40% BME to your middle leadership stream this year, but it's always about getting results, making better decisions and generating more effective execution. Linking the culture you want to the decisions you make and the behaviors you need to see shows what you’re trying to achieve and why.
Get some help
You can’t shape a culture alone and you can’t (or certainly shouldn’t) shape it with fear alone. Despite what we see in most cultures’ stories about the “boss” (whether that’s nannies, parents, teachers, military or corporate) most bosses don’t want to and can’t effectively rule through fear. You will need allies and you will need more levers than are at your control alone.
Use the people you have around you. You don’t always need an external consultant and can even develop skills in your own people. For example, the G2G programme at Google allows volunteers to spend some of their time helping others build psychological safety, among other things. They speak the same language and know what the issues are.
Do a sense check
Whenever you try to shape a culture there will be resistance. That’s ok. When you try to build a culture where people feel safe speaking up and listening, there is often a sense of “that’s impossible”. This is because many people have never experienced it, but change is always possible—the speed and complexity we feel comfortable with may vary, the speed and complexity we will have to deal with is rarely in our control.
Help them do a sense check by asking them which environment works best for them, which culture? Most people recognize they don't do their best work when they don't feel “safe”. If they still think command and control is right for others then look at some of the other tips in this list.
Walk the talk
You’re on stage, all the time—even when you think you’re doing things quietly. You are being judged as you are judging others. And the higher up the organization you sit, the more visible you are to a bigger audience. Your reputation is what these people say about you. Particularly when you’re not there.
On stage, big gestures are important and so is a spoken explanation in order to ensure everyone understands. Conversely even the smallest gesture can be caught by those closer. So, you need to be consistent.
You have to make time to talk to people, to invite change, to reflect and to do whatever you want other people to do. And you have to do this in front of other people. If you want to complain or gossip or do something else that you don’t want your people to do, then do it to a coach or your family or therapist. If you think humility is important then be humble. If you want to see a certain work ethic then be clear on what that means by saying so.
Find ways to tell stories about behavior
When everything is a stage, everything you say will have impact—what kind of impact is up to you. Stories work well to reinforce behavior. As children that’s what we use them for: to make sense of the world and to work out what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. This continues into every aspect of our lives.
Talk about behavior and the results—for everyone—and link it to things you care about. Be explicit. If you tell stories about people staying late without making it clear you don’t believe in presenteeism, and then talk about people getting promoted, then don’t be surprised if people stay late. When you start telling stories, you’re able to prove a connection between what people do and what you’re trying to achieve, and people respond well to it.
Ask good questions
Given cultures are “the way we do things around here” they rarely get questioned. But if we want to shape a culture, we have to question behaviors. We need to understand why they exist (there is always a reason) and what the barriers are to changing them (usually things you haven’t considered). When we’re under pressure to make change, we often try to explain before we spend enough time trying to really understand. Why, for example, would managers not tell someone that because the report was submitted late, it was less useful than it could have been? Why do some meetings take up so much time, yet end with no decisions being made? If we can really understand what’s going on, we have some hope of knowing how to shape change.
Questions should be used to get specific and continually monitor—what progress are we making? What’s holding us back? What problems are you facing? How can I help? These also help people to think about process (and why it exists) in the right way.
You need to be brave to listen—you might hear things you don’t want to. You need to be brave to ask questions - you might not like the answers. You need to be brave to call out issues and state problems—people might be upset. But all of these things are what leaders do.
We’re ambitious in our targets. We need to be ambitious in ourselves and in our people. We can do better and we can create environments where humans can work together effectively and hold each other to account, without fear.