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If You Want a Productive Culture, Focus on the People and What They Do

Leading and developing an organizational culture really means leading and developing the people within it. Culture doesn’t change according to your directives while you’re sitting comfortably in your corner office. It’s not enough to espouse cultural norms at an annual or even a quarterly all-hands meeting. Culture is strengthened when leaders consciously participate in the organization’s day-to-day life.

Opening Up Access and Control

Your staff needs ongoing access to you so they can witness your thinking as it evolves. By working and being with you, they’ll learn what you consider good behavior and good performance. It helps to share information regularly and frequently with your direct reports: Do it weekly, if possible, or at least every few weeks, individually, with focused group meetings in the interim.

Straightforward actions and candid language count the most. It’s not enough to “send a message” to a subordinate through subtle, indirect means like withholding praise or disregarding their input or behavior. Explain what you want and mean, give direct feedback when things go awry, and never wait for an employee to figure out that you’re dissatisfied or displeased.

Look within all levels of the organization to find influencers who can help move initiatives forward. In good times, this may mean encouraging employees to strike out on their own with new enterprises or add fuel to existing ones. Identify which employees are ready for more responsibility and less formal leadership and give them as much leeway as possible.

But when times are rocky or people are lacking self-motivation or are resistant to change, try to provide more specific, concrete direction. Guard against micromanagement or second-guessing because that can undercut staff confidence even more. And be sure to solicit everyone’s views and recognize their efforts as part of supporting their progress.

Breaking Down Resistance to Change

Your true work — and a significant cultural issue — is ensuring managers’ and leaders’ appropriateness and productivity at every level. Do your execs work as a true team or a barely aligned committee? Are they collaborating on a joint purpose that’s guided by your vision? Are their personal goals congruent with the group’s efforts? If not, then numerous tactical areas — compensation, allocation of physical space, access to other resources, even scheduling and reporting — may be rife with conflict.

Most resistant individuals display their lack of commitment noticeably. A curled lip and rolled eyes demonstrate disagreement or dissatisfaction, no matter how much the employee’s words express agreement. Leaders who poll everyone’s opinions again and again reveal their fear of moving forward. And a pattern of making commitments during a meeting, but then making excuses afterward for why work isn’t done is the M.O. of a passive-aggressive exec.

Whether someone is sneering outright or you discover them taking negative covert action, it’s crucial to ask directly and immediately about their objections. Require progress reports on projects and don’t let employees off the hook if they have a pattern of not being up to date. But don’t just focus on the negatives. Thank them, both publicly and privately, for their sincere efforts, and ask often how things could be done better. Listen to their answers, and then discuss what you’ve just learned.

You Can’t Change Everything at Once

Your first set of priorities is to stabilize the organization, end any hemorrhaging of dollars or employees, get everyone on the same page, and quiet people’s fears. Start by reinforcing strengths and focusing on the absolute necessities. Once you see some stability, you can move carefully toward experimentation, greater efficiency, and more external focus.

You can’t simply dispatch inappropriate behaviors by fiat, so be sure that you, as the leader, are truly modeling and supporting positive, progressive ways of being and working yourself. Otherwise, even good people lower down in the organization will eventually have the good impulses drained or crushed out of them — or they’ll just leave.

Keep and share your focus at all times: Tell people where you want the organization to go, why it matters, and how you expect them to get there. Meanwhile, emphasize how much everyone belongs. Make sure everyone knows that there are no stupid jobs, that the organization invests in its employees and recognizes their efforts, and that the rewards for accomplishment will be both obvious and performance based.

Onward and upward,


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