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How can leaders change the culture in their organisations?

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Where there is a disconnect between people, it can lead to a culture of blame or staff resistant to change.
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As a leader you undoubtedly spend a lot of time focussing on things like turnover, product development and successful delivery. But transformative leaders also take time to think about their impact on their employees and the culture of their organisation. And where there are problems with the culture e.g. a culture of blame or staff resistant to change, what can you do about it?

Become self aware about the way you are showing up to others

I worked recently with a senior leader who had had enough. So they wanted to move on to a new organization. They had applied for another role, which they were sure to get. The interview date rolled in, but when it came to it, they didn’t go. What caused this about turn? 

This leader had been experiencing an upward battle in engaging staff. It was difficult getting people on side with change, seeing the standards and changes they needed enacted. When they decided to leave, they stopped trying so hard. They relaxed and stepped back. And something changed in the organisation. People began to do exactly what this leader had been trying so hard to achieve and things started to click in to place.

With some help reflecting on this turn of events together, they had a realisation that exacting high standards gave them a lot of anxiety. And we all know that we’re not at our best when we are stressed. They realised that what was really important to effective leadership, was to dial down the anxiety. They needed to work on their own fears and beliefs about failure, and what failure would mean about them. 

The organisation is going from strength to strength and they are very glad they didn’t jump and stayed the course. It reminded me of some of the work of Amy Edmondson about how leaders set the climate for a workplace to flourish, and how critical psychological safety is for success in organisations. The shift in this leader’s self-awareness made the difference and they continue to work on reduction of anxiety as one of their most important tasks as a leader. 

Put a stop to blame culture through relationship building

Something also happened in a large public body I worked with, when people began connecting and talking with each other differently.  This organisation was struggling with a blame culture. 

The issues that came up, around clearing work quickly, managing performance or providing employees with the right learning and development were always someone else’s fault. Either a different department, or in the levels above, someone else had caused the problem. 

And the culture of blame meant that the organisation had become quite fractured. This had a huge impact on productivity as leaders and employees didn’t speak to those outside their work area very often. So results were disjointed, or work fell through the gaps. 

I brought groups of employees together from across the organisation to start having some conversations together. We used the principle of approaching conversations from a point of curiosity and not judgement. When we shifted to this lens for communicating, using just one of Glenda Eoyang's principles from her work on Human Systems Dynamics, we saw very different results and relationships manifest. Conversations began to get to the root of the issues and how to solve those problems: usually involving working together better. Over the course of six months, I saw this organisations culture shift. 

Employee engagement improved, delivery went up and there were higher levels of productivity. The culture had shifted through people thinking about their relationships with others, how and when they spoke to each other, and what results they were likely to get from their own actions. This self-awareness made such a difference to this organisation.

Notice that culture is a web of interconnected relationships

When we talk about culture, people are often baffled as to how to change it. Or even know what it is. And at its heart, culture is a web of interconnected relationships. Culture change comes about through changes in those relationships. We can really make shifts in relationships and in turn culture, when we understand:

  • ourselves
  • how we interact with others 
  • what’s going on between each other 
  • the impact we have on each other

Giving employees the opportunity to connect, to centre their relationships, to role model more of what we want to see is all part of what makes leadership, and culture transformative.

When you have attended to culture, delivery of everything else becomes more effective.

This means working with people whilst they reflect with each other, in relationship. It may mean postponing action and task temporarily. This approach lies at the heart of the work we have been undertaking at Mayvin. It may sound simple, but it’s not easy. It often goes against the grain of outcome and task focused cultures.  This kind of work can be a challenge to the very future you’re seeking to change. 

If you would like to do more to enhance and develop your organisation’s relationships, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch with us on [email protected] to discuss further.

This was written by Clare Joghee

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