In Part 1 of the blog The art and science of transforming cultures we looked at the principles of success when it comes to culture change, and how having an appreciation of those principles is useful. But we also shared how that appreciation doesn't answer the deeper and more important questions...
‘Why’ are those principles important? and ‘How’ they should be applied?
To understand that, we can look at important breakthroughs from cognitive science in recent years. Put simply, and believe it or not, creating new patterns of behaviour within an organisation requires actual physical changes to the brains of the people within it!
The power of organisational cultures is such that existing behaviours have been reinforced over years of workplace routines, conversations and habits. It’s hard-wired into their brains. The power of this is such that even new employees start to be influenced (attitudinally and physically) within just a few weeks.
"It only takes 1-2 weeks for employees to start treating customers the same way the employer is treating the employee"
Colloquially, we often refer to this concept as “the way we do things around here”. It reflects part of the organisational identity – what makes each organisation unique.
If there is no need to change, these culture patterns are usually a strength. They allow organisations to have a rhythm and enhances their efficiency and consistency. In contrast, if they aren’t strengths they become the key factor inhibiting transformation and change.
Some years ago, neuroscientist Jeffery Schwartz teamed up with David Rock to write a path-breaking article “The Neuroscience of Leadership”. It challenged a number of traditional change management principles – which still pervade much of the management population today.
Behaviourism doesn’t work.
Rock and Schwartz found that change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) don’t work. Using a stick to crack into habitual problems (particularly in a public or team environment) simply refocuses the brain on the problem, reinforcing the neural pathways that are causing them.
The carrot is more effective, especially for those whose behaviour is aligned to what’s wanted in the organisation (i.e. they are ‘on-brand’). But not for those demonstrating ‘off-brand’ behaviours, as public recognition of others simply raises their anxiety further.
Our view is that the key is to place more emphasis on recognising the successful event or example (because it promulgates incidences of ‘insight’) rather than the individual in a public environment. And individuals should receive positive feedback in a more private context, and be recognised more for their ‘effort’ than the outcome.
Humanism is over-rated.
This is the bedrock of ‘classic’ coaching – listening to people’s problems, attempting to understand them in their own terms and, allowing a holistic solution to emerge.
And in our view there is no doubt that a person-centred approach has its merits. But it is much more relevant in dealing with an individual’s behavioural challenges. It takes a lot of individually concentrated time. So while it can be deployed on case-by-case basis, in most organisations there simply isn’t the time to undertake this in a systematic way across the entire population.
Focus is power.
An important insight from this is that different functional specialists in organisations (e.g. IT versus HR, versus Finance, versus Marketing etc), develop physiological differences that effectively prevent them from seeing the world the same way.
In fact, we often say that although specialists from different functions appear to be having a dialogue, often they are actually having parallel monologues – speaking in different dialects, which mean they don’t really connect in their thinking.
This actually forms one of the foundation principles of ‘ON-Brand’. We encourage people to look at their organisational world through a ‘new’ lens – the brand.
One of the reasons (but not the only one) this is helpful is because in effect the ‘brand lens’ is a new and neutral ground for the different functional roles and therefore provides the basis to drive greater consensus in interpretation and alignment. That argument has been substantiated through our experience by virtue of the fact that ‘marketing’ is often that area that struggles most to make an adjustment. Why? Because they have already developed their paradigm of ‘brand’.
Expectation shapes reality.
People’s expectations, whether conscious or buried in their deeper brain centres play a key role in their perceptions of what is happening. As Rock and Schwartz point out, this has important implications. The example they cite is that two customer service representatives could view the same customer interaction fundamentally differently. One who ‘sees’ customers as trouble-makers will hear complaints that need to be allayed. Another, who sees their customers as busy but intelligent professionals, would hear valuable suggestions for improving the product or service. We recall one senior airline Executive once saying "passengers are just baggage with attitude!". How is that for a unique perspective on the customer.
Attention density shapes identity.
Critically, for insights to be effective, they need to be generated from within by the individuals themselves, not given to them as conclusions as is so often the case.
“Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognise, encourage, and deepen their team’s insights” conclude Rock and Schwartz. As the McKinsey survey demonstrated, “Employees need to ‘own’ any kind of change initiative for it to be successful.
As we often say...
...to create is to own.
At ON-Brand we stimulate this change through various means:
Why? Because attention on these catalytic insights must happen time and time again. There needs to be sufficient ‘attention density’ to really facilitate long-term change in the neural pathways. Which is why ‘training’ alone has only modest impact – no matter how insightful and inspiring it seems at the time, it can only be a (admittedly useful) starting point.
So, to summarise, here are some simple guidelines for leaders:
Focus on successes not the problems. Reinforce and talk about positive examples and shape conversations that encourage your people to generate insights from them. This is why, what we call ‘on-brand stories’, are a powerful vehicle. Try and avoid giving them the right ‘answer’ even when it’s obvious to you. That’s central to coaching methods, but expand on that and apply the idea to day-to-day conversations and team meetings.
Encourage ‘purposeful practice’ on a regular basis. Change requires persistence, especially at the beginning. It’s no different than learning a new skill in sport or music. It takes practice before it becomes natural and second nature (when it does we can be confident the new brain connections have been formed). For example in the pilot store of the retailer, people were encouraged to take a few minutes every day to solely focus on the new behaviours.
Reorientate focus when individuals or teams fall off the wagon. But do it in a quiet and encouraging way. Don’t castigate or admonish people when they get it wrong. Remember, they are only fighting against long established and deeply embedded behavioural practices.
This may sound straightforward yet few managers find it easy to do. And that’s not surprising – for the very same reasons their people find it hard to adopt new behaviours and practices. After all, most management models that have been reinforced through both study and are embedded inside organisations, put a very strong emphasis on ‘problem solving’ (i.e. looking for what’s not working and addressing those shortcomings)
Ultimately the change process starts with you and your management behaviours. And the higher you are perceived to be in the organisation (more of a ‘who-said’), the more important your practices and behaviours matter.
Finally, back to the first part of this blog and the Retailer and pilot site where the store managers applied these principles. Their gut-feel that things were changing positively was right. Three weeks after they received “the new approach is failing” message, the first wave of customer research (exit surveys, mystery and accompanied shops) were delivered. On the key measures - ‘I was made to feel welcome’ ‘I was offered help and assistance’ and ‘I felt appreciated’, - the scores virtually doubled! And that was after just month one.
Culture change is more challenging than most but the answer to the 'How' are there. And we'd be happy to discuss this further with you if your priority is to build the 'right' culture to to take on a world of change.
References and further reading: