Four Choices for Leaders to Inspire Culture Change

Culture change can feel slow at times. Trying to get a large group of people to change their behaviour can take a little time, but it is really exciting to see it when it happens.

It doesn’t have to take as long as many would think, especially if leaders can be consciously focused and resilient on those small moments that make the biggest difference. Those moments are the ones we have all seen. They come in the form of conversations, meetings, decisions, and emails.

In those moments, leaders need to make people feel comfortable to try new things.

Unfortunately, the moments are often brought undone by another set of behaviours that slow the culture change process. They are those negative, sarcastic, and cynical behaviours of other leaders that can waste the inspiring moments.

We’ve all been in meetings and noticed that person in the group who rolls their eyes when someone else is speaking, shakes their head slightly with a grin on their face as if to indicate that the person speaking is full of crap, or locks eyes with one of their conspirators using the raised eyebrow as if to highlight to each other how the person speaking is wasting everyone’s time.

Everyone else can see it and the person talking can feel it. These are the moments that if turned, can turn interest into inspiration. The following four choices will be a big start:

1. Trust instead of Taunt

A company was trying to improve the way the sales, marketing, and supply chain teams collaborated in order to improve their ability to meet customer demands. In one of the strategy meetings, there was a great potential moment when the Sales Manager openly acknowledged that their department needed to be better at providing accurate and timely customer projections to the production team, expressing a genuine intention to improve.

The Production Manager then said “Well that would be a nice change for you to actually start sharing your figures with us, we’ve been saying it for a while…means we might be able to do our forecasts for a change.” Bang. The moment is wasted.

An alternative response could have been; “Thanks, that would be fantastic. I know it is difficult to always get the right figures at the right time but any improvement there would be a great help for us.” Such a small change in words would have indicated that they trusted the Sales Manager’s intention instead of criticising him for the very thing he has admitted he would like to change.

In a leadership development workshop I was facilitating many years ago, a participant did a great thing by opening up to the group that they were not a very open person and that they could see that it made it difficult for others to properly trust them.

In particular, the person admitted that he had even instructed his team not to disclose all facts and figures to the finance team, in order to “preserve some ammunition if things went wrong.” Right at the point when the whole group was completely and utterly inspired by this person’s openness, he then looked over at a member from finance and said facetiously; “But I guess it won’t matter anyway because you guys won’t share yours with us and will just lock it into our budget so no-one achieves a bonus…ha ha.” Bang. The moment is wasted.

Having shown some vulnerability to the group, all that was needed was a continuation of that trust to positively open the path for others. As a result, the person who he referred to felt the need to show pride in the behaviour he was just taunted for. Without realising it, taunting is often just a sarcastic way of seeking revenge for issues or conflicts that haven’t been resolved in the past. Trusting the person’s intention is a much more powerful way to encourage and recognise such openness.

2. Humility instead of Humour

A friend of mine was once about to enter the room for a large strategic workshop and was in the middle of a group of managers. The new GM of the division was already in the room. Before they walked in, one of the managers held them all up and said with a big smirk on his face; “Is everybody ready? Here we go for yet another wonderful, naval-gazing talk fest that doesn’t result in anything! If we don’t ask too many questions, hopefully, we can all be at the bar by 5.30 pm!” Everyone laughed. Bang. The moment is wasted.

In fact, the moment hadn’t even started. My friend was obviously thinking they were about to receive an inspiring pep-talk so listened carefully and was slightly confused. Maybe something like this would have been better; “I’m looking forward to today because we don’t often get a chance to all be together as a management team. Even if we don’t solve anything today, at least we get a chance to think strategically and focus on some of the bigger picture issues.”

The workshop itself began with the Finance Director doing the introduction. This was part of the GM’s vision to build a stronger leadership profile for her whole leadership team by having them all participate in leading the sessions. It was the very first instance of this new vision and the Finance Director began with; “Good to see everyone here. I am sure the sales guys weren’t shy about spending their travel budget on the bar last night. Special mention to the Marketing team who have managed to attend a meeting before 9.30 am, sorry for making you wear more than jeans and sneakers.” Bang. The moment is wasted.

This was meant to be the start of an inspiring strategic leadership session. Something like this would have been fine; “Good morning everyone and thanks for coming. I am not normally that good at speaking before large groups but I am grateful to be up here today. It is hopefully the start of an important discussion for us as a group, we are wrapped to have everyone here and are looking forward to a great day with you all. Welcome.”

Humour is something leaders instinctively use when they are nervous but can diminish the moment and make others question whether or not a leader is truly serious. Leaders need to set a higher standard than that and ‘humility’ will always be more welcomed by others because it shows you care and that you are human.

3. Thank instead of Threaten

A senior leadership team was trying to improve the culture of their department. It was characterised by short-term thinking, internal competitiveness, blame, anxiety, and negativity. Through the process and in the lead-up to a leadership forum, the leadership team reflected heavily on the role they had personally played in driving this behaviour and even perpetuating it.

Their intent was to change the vision for the department to inspire their teams, as well as start the process of changing behaviour around a new set of team values and principles.

Early in the presentation, there was a great potential moment when one of the senior leaders said in front of everyone; “I am one of the key culprits when it comes to sending out urgent email requests at all hours of the night and I know I often raise my voice in meetings when tasks haven’t been done. I am sure this creates a sense of anxiety and fear for a lot of you and it is something I want to work on in order to set a better example of our new values.”

What a great moment…until one of the group said “Well, it’s one thing to say it, but another thing to do it…I intend to hold you to that promise!” Bang. The moment is wasted.

All that was needed was something like; “Thanks, that means a lot for you to say that and I want to thank you for putting yourself out there by getting up and admitting that. I am sure it couldn’t have been easy but it is really inspiring to see that you obviously care a lot about these changes. I will do my best to support you.”

Threatening means the person on the receiving end will feel the need to defend themselves and justify their actions.  At the very least, the senior leader will be wondering whether or not it is worth admitting mistakes in the future. Thanking makes the person feel glad that they did it.

I also saw once in a similar forum, an Executive team sharing an announcement about a new strategic venture that they were hoping to get some input into from the next level of managers. The Executive team was very excited but hadn’t shared any of it with the wider team until this presentation.

Towards the end, one of the managers in the audience asked; “So how much of this has actually been agreed to? I can see a few big issues with it and it would have been great to have some involvement.”  Whilst the question may have felt quite confronting to the senior managers, this was a great potential moment to showcase a new way of doing things, until one of the Executives said; “Well, we don’t have time to patiently go through every single idea and get input from everyone, we would spend our whole life wasted in meeting after meeting and never getting anywhere. If you don’t like it, then you probably need to reconsider whether this is the right company for you.” Bang. The moment is wasted.

Not surprisingly, no other questions were asked after that. Imagine instead that the Executive had said; “Thanks, that is a really great question and a fair concern, thanks for raising it. I guess that is one of the things we were hoping to achieve from today as we know the process hasn’t been perfect. We are pretty excited but want you all to feel the same so we would love to hear your thoughts and concerns.” This would have been a great role model response and made it easier for the conversation to flow.  Instead, the manager who asked the question felt humiliated.

Threatening instead of thanking in fact is a negative reinforcement, one that makes people feel fear and avoid that behaviour in the future.

4. Embrace instead of Embarrass

Four emerging leaders had just finished a pilot leadership program and were buzzing with inspiration and excitement. They had formed new relationships and couldn’t stop talking about all the things they had learned and were eager to put into practice.

Catching the elevators down from the floor where the program had taken place, it stopped on a lower floor where two senior managers from the same company got into the lift. There was a small awkward silence until one of them said; “Where have you guys just come from?”.

One of the emerging leaders responded by telling them about the leadership program, what they had learned, and how inspired they felt.

A great potential moment until one of the senior managers said; “Oh wow, nice for some isn’t it… haha. I hope you intend to make up for all that time after hours to catch up on the lost productivity.” Bang. The moment is wasted.

Another member of the program asked the other senior manager; “Have you ever done a program like this?” only to get a response of; “Nah, are you kidding, I don’t have time for that stuff.  Plus none of that is really relevant to our area, we are too busy with the numbers” Double bang. They even finished with; “Good luck catching up on all your emails over the weekend.” The moment is officially shattered.

I literally saw the eyes and body language of the young leaders slump with embarrassment and disappointment.  Instead, imagine the senior leaders had said something like; “Oh wow, sounds like an amazing few days. It’s good that we (the company) were able to give you a chance to learn and grow with a little bit of time away from the day-to-day because you guys work really hard.  Leadership is really important to the company and anything that can help some of our emerging leaders like you is just going to be great for our future. Every chance to learn is just so valuable as a leader.  All the best, I am sure you are all going to kick some big goals!”

A response like that would have accelerated the group’s inspiration to a whole new level and reinforced that what they did was truly valuable.

All of these choices probably seem logical when you read them, but remember that in every negative example was a person just like you and me. They are good, passionate leaders who did not have bad intentions, just poor reactions and habits that need tweaking when the inspiring moment appears before them so they don’t waste it for themselves and others. It doesn’t take much at all to just enjoy the moment.

Be aware of those small moments that are great opportunities to be trusting, humble, thankful, and embracing. If you do, it will make people feel inspired and encouraged to do the same.


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