What a simple fly teaches leaders about culture change

By Heather Campbell

Heather here.

Have you ever bought something in the supermarket that you didn’t actually need or want just because it was on offer? Have you ever exceeded the speed limit a little just because everyone else around you was doing so? Have you ever aimed at a fly in a urinal just because – well – just because it was there? 

I’m guessing your answers to the first two questions are “yes”. And most likely the answer to the third question is yes as well, assuming you happen to have been aiming into a urinal that had a fly in it.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the fly in the urinal example, and you think I’ve really lost it, let me explain a little. To encourage careful aim and less, what is politely called, ‘spillage’, several public lavatories around the world have trialled embedding the image of a fly near the drain in urinals to encourage more direct aim. It’s reported to have a significant positive effect.A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how to get better at planning the ‘what’ of business – setting the business strategy. This week’s focus is ‘the how’ – the culture of the business. Having been through so much upheaval over the last few months, a lot of business leaders I’m speaking to are using this period of unanticipated turbulence to consider how to develop their company culture before things settle down again (as much as things ever settle down in business, of course).A lot of CommsMasters’ work is helping leaders achieve sustained change in their company culture. We love to take something that seems so nebulous and turn it into a set of steps that brings predictable, measurable outcomes. I purposely don’t say easy steps – I’d never say that culture change is easy, but it is easier than most leaders think it will be.

 And one of the key secrets to making culture change easier is captured in the three examples above. You see, in each of these situations, behaviour has been directed by the environment within which that behaviour occurred. We can be surprisingly easily influenced and minor changes to an environment can have a big impact on our behaviour.

“But, hang on Heather, culture is about more than behaviour. It’s about values and purpose and ‘the feel’ of the business.” Yes, I agree, culture is a complex mix of things. I find, however, that when I’m talking to leaders about what they want to change about their culture, or how they know their culture isn’t quite what they want it to be, it usually boils down to the things they see people doing – or not doing. In other words, their behaviours. 

‘People around here don’t make decisions’; ‘you can’t get anything done’, ‘it’s like wading through treacle’; ‘people just wait to be told what to do’; ‘there’s such a silo-mentality’…just a few of the frustrations that leaders have shared with me about their organisation’s culture recently. They’re describing their culture through the behaviours they’re experiencing around them. For that reason, I always recommend that leaders start culture change by focussing on behaviours – what do you want people to do differently?

The next thing we work on is how to make it easier for people to do those things differently. That comes down to understanding how the environment people are working in impacts their behaviours. Change the environment and you’ve a good chance of changing the behaviour too. 

If you and your fellow leaders focus on creating the right environment to encourage the behaviours you want, you’ll find you get change, and the culture you want will emerge naturally. After all, the culture you don’t want most likely emerged naturally in the first place.

Here’s one recent example of a simple change to illustrate the point. The CEO wanted his senior team to be less siloed in their thinking. He wanted to build a culture where senior leaders challenged one another constructively about topics that were outside their immediate remit. We investigated why the leaders didn’t challenge each other already and found a surprising reason. The existing culture in the organisation was that leaders didn’t step on each other’s patch and, in that organisation, ‘your patch’ was clearly defined by your job title. When people’s job titles were broadened to reflect the wider thinking that the CEO wanted them to demonstrate, the senior leaders felt that they had the right to comment more broadly. And, critically, their peers were also more open to them doing so. It no longer felt as if they were interfering in each other’s space.

In a more complex situation, the Executive Team wanted mid-level managers across the organisation to deal with underperformance. Acceptance of poor performance was endemic within the culture. The problem was, however, that this organisation was operating in an area where it was really difficult to fill vacancies and very easy for people to move to a new job. The managers believed that, if they tried to deal with under-performance, the individual would simply leave, and they would struggle to find a replacement. Now under-resourced, the manager would still be held accountable for delivering the same business results. To move to a culture where underperformance was managed rather than ignored, the senior leaders had to commit to being more flexible in their expectations of what the managers could deliver if they ended up with a depleted team. This wasn’t an easy change to make as this also meant that client expectations had to be managed. It took time and focus. But without it, the culture of accepting poor performance was never going to change.

Culture change isn’t easy, but it can be made easier if we focus on understanding both the behaviours through which we assess our culture, and also on the environment that drives those behaviours.

Catch you next time!

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